Welcome to the Hoagland Soil Microbial Ecology Lab

Produce growing at the Eskanazi Hospital’s Sky Farm Rooftop Garden in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana

The long-term goal of our lab is to support the continued growth and sustainability of local specialty crop (e.g. vegetables, herbs, fruit) production systems by identifying practical approaches to increase the productivity, quality and safety of produce, while ensuring that these production systems more efficiently cycle nutrients and are more resilient to biotic and abiotic stress. Diversifying agricultural production systems in the U.S. Midwest with specialty crops and integrating specialty crop production into urban centers can provide new sources of income, improve human health and well-being, and bring broad environmental benefits. To effectively provide these benefits, however, specialty crop growers need to deal with soils that are degraded and/or contaminated with pollutants, keep up with pest populations that are constantly evolving to overcome current forms of resistance, and adapt to changing climtes such as heavier spring rains and prolongued periods of drought. Specialty crop growers also need varieties that are best adapted to their local production and environmental constraints, and produce food that is unique, nutritious and has exceptional flavor to be competitive in local marketplaces.

To help specialty crop growers overcome these challenges, our lab studies soil microbial ecology and beneficial plant-microbial relationships. The soil microbial community regulates many key agroecosystems services including nutrient cycling, pathogen dynamics and pollutant detoxification. Moreover, some soil microbes can form intimate associations with plants, helping them acquire nutrients and better withstand pathogens and abiotic stress such as heavy metals, drought, salt and heat. New genomic tools developed in the last decade have greatly expanded awareness of the abundance and diversity of soil and plant microbiomes, though understanding of how individual taxa evolve and proliferate in soil systems and mechanistically interact with plants to improve their health and performance is in its infancy. To overcome these knowledge gaps while ensuring that our research is relevant to the needs of growers, we combine applied studies designed to address key production challenges, with fundamental research aimed at elucidating mechanisms regulating beneficial plant-soil-microbial relationships. We employ a participatory research approach that engages growers in identification of the most pertinent production challenges, along with development and dissemination of practical solutions using on-farm trials. Our studies integrate concepts from ecology to redesign speciatly crop production systems that are more efficient and resilient to environmental perturbations. We make use of local resources whenever possible, such as soil amendments derived from local waste streams, to ensure that the management practices we develop are practical and economically feasible. Some of our studies are conducted in collaboration with vegetable breeders, so we can identify germplasm that best supports beneficial plant-soil-microbial relationships, and we can develop practical approaches to integrate selection for these beneficial relationships into crop breeding programs. At the same time, we are contributing to the development of new improved vegetable varieties that are better adapted to low-input farming systems, and have unique end-use quality characteristics demanded by consumers.

Current projects in our lab are focused on:

  • Reducing heavy metal uptake in vegetable and fruit crops
  • Identifying biological approaches to mitigate diseases caused by soil-borne and foliar pathogens
  • Improving nitrogen-use efficiency in vegetable production systems
  • Developing new improved tomato and carrot varieties