Beyond the Drought Paradigm: Does Hydrology Drive Pathogen Impact on Plant Health?

2019 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2019-2021

C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and HMEI associated faculty, and Ph.D. candidate Ian Miller will lead an examination of how hydrology — the flow of water from soil to the atmosphere through plant systems — drives the spread and evolution of plant pathogens such as fungi. Fungi and other plant pathogens can decimate agricultural crops, a critical concern as the world’s population increases. Although the spread of pathogens is closely linked to the water cycle, there is a shortage of data explaining the mechanisms behind this relationship.

Metcalf and her research group will study the flower Lewis flax and its rust fungus pathogen Melampasora lini as groundwork for a model framework for how the terrestrial water cycle affects fungal evolution directly and indirectly. The project’s aim is to establish a starting point for developing predictive models that can show global patterns of pathogen risk in agricultural systems, as well as how the spread of plant pathogens could respond to climate change. The findings will be used to formulate sustainable disease-management programs informed by evidence-based ecological and evolutionary theory. This project is related to research Miller is conducting through a 2019 Walbridge Fund Graduate Award for Environmental Research.


Educational Impact

Five Princeton undergraduates will be brought on to the project each year to help establish the direction of the research, analyze data and spend eight weeks conducting fieldwork at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. The students will consist of HMEI summer interns as well as undergraduates pursuing independent research as part of their senior thesis. Students will work closely with researchers in Princeton’s departments of geosciences and ecology and evolutionary biology. The project also will recruit a postdoctoral researcher.

Participating Departments

Collaborating Institutions


Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs

Graduate Students

  •  Ian Miller, EEB

Undergraduate Students

  •  Juliana Jiranek ’20
  •  Mckenna Brownell ’20