Two UTSC faculty receive prestigious boost from NSERC
by Kurt Kleiner
Two of UTSC’s leading researchers have received Strategic Project Research grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) totaling more than $300,000.
Malcolm Campbell, professor of cell and systems biology and vice principal (research) at UTSC, will partner with colleagues at the University of Alberta and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc. to explore the effect that early environment can have on gene expression in trees. Myrna Simpson, professor of environmental science, is part of a team examining the effects of a soil additive called “biochar” in northern forests.
NSERC awarded a total of $32.4 million over three years to 70 applicants in the most recent round of awards. Only 16.5 percent of applicants were chosen.
Campbell will explore how trees respond to environmental conditions based on their histories. His research has shown that poplar tree clones that are genetically identical nevertheless respond to environmental stress differently depending on which part of the country they have been raised in.
The work demonstrates that at least some trees have a kind of “memory” of previous environmental conditions, Campbell says.
“As climate change continues to place new stresses on the forests, understanding how a tree’s past history will affect its future behavior will be vitally important for both the forestry industry and the environment overall,” says Campbell.
Simpson is partnering with other U of T researchers to examine how biochar affects northern forests. Biochar is a carbon additive made by partially burning plant material. A number of researchers are examining how making biochar and adding it to the soil can help to draw carbon out of the atmosphere while improving soil health.
“It’s like an economical version of charcoal. It can be mass-produced from plant material,” Simpson says. “Biochar can keep the nutrients in the soil and enhance fertility of the soil. It’s also a good sink for carbon dioxide, so it should be helpful with respect to reducing atmospheric CO2 levels.”
Simpson will work with research lead by Sean Thomas, professor of forestry at the St. George campus, and other researchers from St. George and UTM, as they manufacture biochar and apply it to test plots in the Haliburton Forest. Her role will be to examine the effects of the biochar on the soil over time.
Other members of the team are Sandra Smith, dean and professor at the faculty of forestry at St. George, John Casperson, professor of forestry at St. George, and Nathan Basiliko, forestry professor at UTM.
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