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John Flunker,
NSF Graduate Fellow

NSF GK-12 Project: University of Missouri-St. Louis
Missouri Science Teaching and Education Partnership (MO-STEP)
URL: http://www.umsl.edu/%7Ebiology/icte/MO-STEP

Thesis Title: Defensive Phenotypic Plasticity as a Function of Soil Moisture and Consequences for Plant-Herbivore Interactions
College/University: University of Missouri-St. Louis

Research Advisor: Robert Marquis

Degree Sought

University Department and/or Lab
Department of Biology

Research Focus
Interactions between extrafloral nectary plants, ants, and insect herbivores.

Description of Research
I am studying factors influencing variation in the expression of anti-herbivore defenses and subsequent ecological consequences for the extrafloral nectary producing prairie annual Chamaecrista fasciculata (Fababceae). Specifically, I am investigating the effect of the abiotic factor soil moisture upon the mutualism between predatory ant-guards and C. fasciculata. Past investigation in the system has demonstrated that increased soil moisture can increase the volume of extrafloral nectar that the plant produces, increase leaf area, decrease herbivore damage, and increase seed set. The underlying mechanisms for these results, however, have not been examined. Thus I am exploring the effects of increased soil moisture on the constituents of extrafloral nectar, including sugars and amino acids and furthermore, the effects of increased soil moisture on the expression of the non-extrafloral nectary defenses, tannins and leaf trichomes. Furthermore, I am examining the ecological consequences of increased soil moisture upon interactions between ants, insect herbivores, and C. fasciculata. This study will help to further illuminate the complex dynamics of abiotic factors in influencing the mutualism between ant-guards and extrafloral nectary plants as well as addressing potential mechanisms for the expression of variable defensive phenotypes.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience
I have integrated my personal research into the GK-12 experience by involving highly motivated and biologically interested high school students in my research. I have hired two students as paid research assistants for the summer of 2007 to help with field and greenhouse data collection for my masterís thesis. Additionally, the students will have the opportunity to perform individual experiments within the C. fasciculata system. By doing so, these students will have an opportunity to gain insight into the process of scientific research which will potentially facilitate future interest in pursuing science as a profession.

Profile date: July 2007
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