With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Katy Heath, PhD, is an associate professor of Plant Biology in the School of Integrative Biology and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Research in the Heath Lab for Coevolutionary Genomics focuses on the evolution of mutualisms, which are most generally defined as species interactions that increase the fitness of both (or all) partners. Prof. Heath received her BS from the University of Illinois in 2000 and her PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2007.
What is your research in microbial systems about?
I study the evolutionary genetics of plant-microbe symbiosis, focusing on mutually-beneficial interactions (mutualisms) that increase the performance of both partners. We ask questions about how natural selection acts on both species in a mutualism, the genes and molecular pathways underlying the evolution of important mutualism traits, and how the evolution of mutualisms varies across space and through time. We are also interested in how mutualisms evolve in response to various global changes. Our main focal system is the symbiosis between leguminous plants (like soybeans, peas, lentils) and nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria called rhizobia. This mutualism is super important in natural systems as well as agricultural systems, where it produces high-protein legume crops and improves soil fertility for all crops. We also have projects on plant-fungal interactions, fungal-fungal interactions, and plant evolution.
How are you conducting your research?
We integrate a lot of different techniques, from fieldwork and experimental manipulations in natural populations to genomics and transcriptomics to integrate natural variation at the molecular level with natural variation in phenotypic traits. Ultimately we’re trying to build an understanding of how plants and their microbial symbionts evolve, or coevolve, from the molecular level to the geographic metapopulation scale. That goal will keep me busy for years to come!
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
I can’t think of a better place to do research. This campus has so many research resources, strength in plant and microbial biology, plus the culture and support necessary for integrative multidisciplinary work (like the Institute for Genomic Biology and our many other institutes). But most important are the colleagues who are working on exciting and relevant science and willing to collaborate or even just chat anytime. I’m lucky to call many of my close friends as well, and I am always reminded how fortunate we are to have this kind of environment when I talk to colleagues elsewhere. I feel this way about my own unit (Integrative Biology) and on campus more generally.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
I do basic science myself, though we have been working in agricultural systems (soybean) some in the last year, and it has been really exciting for me to be a little closer to applied work that could directly apply to a farmer! For the most part, what we are trying to do is better understand the evolution of microbes and their interactions with plants. It’s not overstating things to say that these interactions support all life on earth, so we should really care about how they form, evolve, and will change in response to a changing environment. Beyond our own symbiotic system, understanding how bacteria evolve is critically important for addressing the major challenges we face in agriculture, human health, and conservation. Microbes can evolve quickly, and their evolution drives many of the big unknowns going forward, such as global nutrient cycles and food production in a changing climate. There are so many unanswered questions about microbial evolution! But new techniques (like population genomics) are letting us address them in new and exciting ways.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
Absolutely, and it’s a University of Illinois story! I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate researcher here with two absolutely fantastic teachers and mentors – John Cheeseman and Carol Augspurger (both recently retired from Plant Biology). With Carol, I learned to ask questions, write, and think in her Ecology course, and I spent weeks in Trelease Woods identifying plant species and taking field data. I didn’t grow up camping or hiking, so this was a really formative experience for me. I spent more time in John’s lab, and he was my main research mentor. He gave me the opportunity to travel to a field station on a coral reef island in Belize twice on research, and because he cared deeply about mentoring undergraduate researchers and women in science, he allowed me to participate fully in the research and questions. I remember standing knee-deep in a mangrove swamp on a tiny island in the middle of Caribbean, where he and I had to come up with a sampling scheme that was randomized but fast given our surroundings. I recall John writing numbers on the back of the waxy, thick mangrove leaves and holding them up like playing cards for me to pick – providing a quick randomization scheme for us to choose our next focal plant for measurement. This whole process was just insanely fun to me, despite the nightmares I was secretly having about sinking into the peat during our treks through the mangroves, so I was officially hooked on plant research. My love of microbes came a bit later, but they follow very naturally when you care about plant ecology and evolution!