This project is about integrating complex, interdisciplinary science to better understand how communication works, at a cellular level, between different kingdoms, and how cells actively shape their environments. Specifically, work will focus on how fungal, microbial, and plant cells communicate between and affect each other and surrounding soil systems. One known mechanism enabling inter-kingdom communication is that cells secrete nanoscale structures called extracellular vesicles. These extremely small sub-cellular objects play a role in transporting packages of genetic and chemical materials that are used to communicate with other cells, and to affect the interactions of other living and non-living entities in their environments. What remains poorly understood are which biological and environmental factors govern extracellular vesicle release, what "cargo" they carry, where they are transported, whether they transform along the way, how and if they reach their targets, and their ultimate effects. The potential implications of being able to understand and manipulate extracellular vesicles in the environment are enormous; these interactions can have significant impacts on agriculture, wastewater treatment, contaminant clean-up, microbiomes, and other critical systems. Investigating the mechanisms of inter-kingdom communication is only possible with a confluence of expertise ranging across widely disparate disciplines, and therefore this project includes researchers from biochemistry, environmental microbiology, colloid science, nanoscale fate and transport, biogeochemistry, molecular biology, mycology, soil science, data science, and one integrating discipline called integration and implementation science. The project will also study how effective applied integration and implementation science methods are at enabling and improving co-creation of knowledge at the intersection of disciplines. The broader impacts of this research involve training of graduate students, broadening participation of underrepresented minority students, and performing outreach to elementary students and the general public in museums.

This effort addresses the biological basis for inter-kingdom communication via vesicle transport, the impact of geochemistry on vesicle mediated communication, and the biophysical parameters and surface properties of vesicles that lead to interkingdom biological interactions. The convergence of biochemistry, nanoparticle surface properties, and soil geochemistry is unique in studies of bacterial/fungal/plant interactions within the native soil environment. Consequently, the overall intellectual merit of this project is two fold: the advancement of knowledge to bridge the gaps in diverse fields of study, and a transformative approach to interdisciplinary research. Goals of the work include intertwining and blending expertise across disparate disciplines to elucidate fungal and bacterial extracellular vesicle generation and transport processes as a basis for engineering improved control strategies. To achieve these goals, the following objectives will be pursued: 1) Identify and characterize extracellular vesicles (e.g. surface chemistry and biological cargo) involved in the interaction of fungi, bacteria, and plant cells in soil systems; 2) Investigate the effects of the surrounding media conditions on extracellular vesicles, 3) Investigate the biological effects imparted by extracellular vesicles between bacteria and fungi under environmental conditions relevant to fungal-bacterial-plant interactions in soil and rhizosphere systems; 4) Use this information to engineer soft colloid vehicles for delivering diverse macromolecular cargo to cells in applications ranging from agriculture to contaminated sediment remediation, and 5) Pilot and qualitatively evaluate the effectiveness of interdisciplinary integration communication methods, conceptual frameworks, and knowledge building tools.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Mamta Rawat
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Duke University
United States
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