Plant pathologist Joanne Emerson receives Department of Energy early career award

Joanne Emerson
Joanne Emerson

Plant pathologist Joanne Emerson is one of 76 scientists from across the nation to receive significant federal funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) in its Early Career Research Program.

Emerson is an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology who studies soil viruses, virtually unknown members of the soil microbiome with a potentially significant influence on biogeochemical processes in many different terrestrial ecosystems. She will receive at least $150,000 per year from DOE for five years to cover personnel and research expenses.

“I am grateful to the Department of Energy for supporting my group’s work here at UC Davis,” Emerson said. “Very little is known about soil viruses, and our lab is working to bridge that knowledge gap through genomic and computational approaches. Support from the DOE will allow us to expand our efforts and launch exciting new research directions, including through the establishment of field sites at five UC Davis Natural Reserves.”

By infecting soil microbes (mostly bacteria), viruses likely have substantial, yet unknown impacts on carbon and nutrient cycling processes. Emerson’s project will help to distinguish between infective and degraded viral particles called virions to establish patterns in soil across diverse ecosystems, including grasslands, forests, chaparrals and wetlands.

Planned research includes field experiments to study soil viral community responses to fire in a conifer forest and to temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide manipulations in a boreal peatland ecosystem. By integrating analyses of these different environments and conditions over time, this project will expand our understanding of the global soil virosphere and its role in terrestrial biogeochemical cycles.

“Soil harbors an incredible abundance and diversity of viruses that infect bacteria, fungi, plants and other organisms,” Emerson added. “In addition to direct impacts on ecosystem health as agents of disease and mortality, viruses—somewhat surprisingly—have significant influences on ecosystem ecology and environmental chemistry.”

The DOE Early Career Research Program, now in its 11th year, has awarded support to 50 scientists from U.S. universities and 26 scientists from national laboratories. Its purpose is to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during their crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work. To be eligible, researchers must be untenured professors at U.S. academic institutions or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory who received a Ph.D. within the past 10 years. Selection was based on peer review by outside scientific experts.

"The Department of Energy is proud to support funding that will sustain America's scientific workforce, and create opportunities for our researchers to remain competitive on the world stage," said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. "By bolstering our commitment to the scientific community, we invest into our nation's next generation of innovators."

More information about the DOE Early Career Research program is available here.