Montana State University

Zabinski to discuss aspects of plant life and the relevance for natural and managed plant communities at final provost's lecture April 12

April 1, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

MSU plant ecologist Catherine Zabinski will wrap up this year's Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series when she delivers her lecture, “Roots and Microbes: The world beneath our feet," at 7 p.m., April 12 in the Museum of the Rockies' Hagar Auditorium. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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Like the deepest levels of the ocean and the outer reaches of space, there are challenges to studying what lies beneath the surface of the earth. For one thing, it’s dark. And, to research the life forms that thrive underground requires disturbing the very thing to be studied.

Finding a way around this problem is a constant struggle for plant scientists like Catherine Zabinski, a professor in Montana State University’s Land Resources and Environmental Sciences Department in the College of Agriculture.

“Technically, it’s a really interesting challenge,” Zabinski said. “If I’m interested in a fungus, how do I set up an experiment with or without that fungus? I can do it in a greenhouse, but if I’m interested in the natural plant community how do I do that?”

Zabinski will discuss the aspects of plant life and the relevance for natural and managed plant communities at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 12, when she delivers the final lecture in this year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series at MSU. The lecture, “Roots and microbes: The world beneath our feet,” will be given at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public, with a reception to follow. 

A plant ecologist, Zabinski’s primary interests are in plant root systems and soil processes, despite not having a background in soil science.

“I have had to learn about soils because the roots are in a soil environment and soils are inherently complex,” Zabinski said. “How plants affect the soil environment, and vice versa, is the question I keep asking in different systems.”

One part of Zabinski’s studies focuses on the relationship between plants and the microbes that primarily live in plant root systems.

“If you look inside the plant there are all types of bacteria and fungi growing there, many with no obvious negative effect on the host plant,” Zabinski said. “We don’t know what they’re all doing in there.”

She is particularly interested in mycorrhizal fungi, fungi that form a mutually beneficial relationship with a plant host. The diameter of a strand of hair, mycorrhizal fungi grow inside the plant root and extend into the soil. The type of fungus Zabinski studies requires a plant host to survive.

“It gets carbon from the plant,” Zabinski explained. “Otherwise, it can’t manufacture its own; it can’t decompose organic matter as a source of carbon. When it grows out into the soil, it’s really good at taking up phosphorous, so you can think of it like an exchange -- the plant provides carbon to the fungus and gets phosphorus in exchange. Structurally, for the plant, it’s like getting hair extensions.”

Through this research, Zabinski realized that mycorrhizal fungi were just one part of the plant-soil story.

“I expanded into looking at nutrient cycles and the bacteria that contribute to that, as well as asking questions about the broader picture of soil processes and mycorrhizae in plants,” she said.

Zabinski’s interest in the plant world began in childhood when she would roam the forests of Northern Minnesota to occasionally avoid housework.

In college, Zabinski majored in pre-medicine, adding plant courses to her schedule.

“I thought there was no point taking anatomy and physiology because, being pre-med, I would have plenty of those classes later,” she said. “So, I took as many plant classes as I could.”

Her plan was to practice medicine part-time, while studying ecology on the side. Six weeks into medical school, Zabinski realized her true passion was plant ecology, so she left medical school to enroll in graduate school.

Zabinski shares this life lesson of recognizing an early pull toward a particular path with the students whom she advises, encouraging them to pay attention to their attraction to certain courses.

In graduate school, Zabinski studied paleoecology, assisting in reconstructing plant communities of the past through core samples taken from lake sediments.

After completing her doctorate work in plant genetics and paleoecology, she found herself drawn to learning more about what was happening below the ground by way of her postdoctoral work on Port Orford cedar trees, a large evergreen that was being destroyed by an introduced soil pathogen.

“This tree grows in all kinds of soils,” she said. “It’s found in the pygmy forests in Northern California, on sand dunes along the coast, in serpentine soils -- an unusual soil type with a unique chemistry -- and in fertile soils along streams. I wondered how it could manage all these different soil types.”

In 1994, Zabinski began working as research faculty at the University of Montana, where her research focused on the effects of disturbance on plant-microbe interactions. One type of disturbed site she worked on was recreation area sites, such as campgrounds in higher elevations. Once again, she found herself wondering what was happening below ground.

“I thought, these soils are very compacted; how do roots grow here? What’s happening with soil bacteria and the fungi that plants require?” she said.

Zabinski joined MSU in January 2000 as a restoration ecologist. She currently teaches the LRES capstone course, and instructs courses in restoration ecology and below-ground plant ecology.

Charles Boyer, vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture, called the addition of Zabinski to the faculty a boon to the college.

“As we continue to discover the amazing diversity of life in the soils world, Dr. Zabinski stands out as a leader,” Boyer said. “She also consistently provides leadership in the faculty governance in our college.”

During her lecture, Zabinski will share photographs of the “photogenic” mycorrhizae she studies and discuss reasons why research about what’s happening between plants, fungi and bacteria is important to Montana for agriculture, invasive species management, and remediation of areas impacted by industry and recreation.

“From an agricultural perspective, there are increasing demands on our food supply with predictions of double the human population by 2050,” she said. “There’s a lot of work on what’s happening in the soil microbial communities and whether we can manage those to increase food production.”

Another concern is increasing the capacity for plants to grow in drought conditions and saline soils, which has to do with how roots are growing and accessing pockets of water and nutrients through the exploration of the soil, Zabinski said.

Zabinski said the ultimate goal is to learn more about how plants work and potentially use that knowledge to increase plant success.

“How do plants manage to grow in the metal-contaminated soils outside of Butte?” she said. “How do they manage to grow in the high elevation sites, some with very compacted soil from recreation-area impacts? Or in a short growing season? Are there interactions between roots and soil fungi and bacteria that increase plant success, and, if there are, can we manage that in some way?”

Contact: Catherine Zabinski, (406) 994-4227 or

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