Joel Swift is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research. His research explores plant microbiomes under abiotic stress, seeking to assess the ability of host-associated microorganisms to alleviate drought and flood stress in maize and relatives. We recently talked with Joel about his research. (Answers have been lightly edited.)
How did you get interested in microbiome research?
When I was just starting out, I was interested primarily in plants. What made them grow, what killed them, what changed their color, shape, taste. However, it was during my college years that I learned of plant microbiomes—a hidden world where plant roots host a vibrant ecosystem comprising bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses, and more! This ignited a curiosity within me and propelled me towards a research journey, where I sought to uncover the connections between plants and their microbiomes.
Briefly describe your project as if you were talking to your grandmother. What excites you about your current research project?
Plants have their digestive system on the outside and underground … their roots! I’m currently involved in a project where I’m trying to understand how tiny living organisms, like bacteria and fungi, that live on these roots affect the plants’ ability to survive extreme weather conditions like droughts and flooding. What excites me the most about this research is that it has the potential to make a big difference in agriculture worldwide. By studying the connections between plants and their natural environment, we can learn how to better protect crops and ensure they can withstand tough conditions.
How does your work contribute to researchers’ understanding of the microbiome?
My previous research during graduate school on grapevines has advanced our understanding of the plant microbiome by focusing on the impact of grafting, a common practice in woody crop species such as apples, almonds, and blueberries. Grafting involves merging parts of two different species or individuals, providing a unique opportunity to explore the interactions between genomes and their implications on plant microbiomes. Through my work, I have examined the influence of grafting on grapevine microbiomes, offering valuable insights that enhance the broader understanding of genome-by-genome interactions in horticulture.
What song do you currently have on repeat?
Tornado Warning by Turnpike Troubadours.
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