Faculty Research Areas

Listed on this page are short descriptions of some of the research areas studied by Luther biology faculty. Students interested in becoming involved in one of these areas of research should contact the faculty member directly. 

Evolutionary Plant Ecology & Genetics - Dr. Baack and his collaborators work on multiple projects examining aspects of plant evolution and ecology, including gene flow between crops and their wild relatives in sunflowers, the evolutionary origins of the crop sunflower, the effect of nuclear-cytoplasmic interactions on hybridization and species barriers, genome doubling and the origin of plant species, genome size evolution, and the evolutionary response of native species to invasive species.

Pulmonary Physiology - Dr. Eichinger and student collaborators are exploring factors which regulate blood flow through the lungs following exercise or high altitude exposure.

Endocrinology - A second area of research by Dr. Eichinger and students examines the hormonal responses to short and long-term exercise in human subjects.

Investigating surface colonization by bacteria - Dr. Enos-Berlage is interested in how bacteria colonize surfaces and use the marine bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus as a model system. V. parahaemolyticus actively colonizes and spreads over solid surfaces and forms tremendous biofilms. Dr. Enos is interested in the mechanisms this organism uses to attach to surfaces and develop into complex, surface-attached communities. In particular, she is interested in the gene products that are involved in these processes and their regulation. Current work involves the use of genetic, molecular, and microscopy techniques.

Investigating the effect of calcium levels on bacterial physiology - Very little information is known about the role of calcium in bacteria. Observations of the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus suggest that calcium levels affect various aspects of bacterial physiology. Dr. Enos-Berlage is interested in determining the bacterial processes that are affected by altered calcium levels and how bacteria sense and respond to changes in calcium concentration. Genetic and molecular approaches are being used to address these questions.

Origin of nonessential chromosomes in Nectria haematococca - Dr. Kaehler has been involved in a collaborative project with Dr. Hans VanEtten’s laboratory in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. VanEtten’s research focus has been on elucidating the molecular basis for host-pathogen interactions, utilizing the soil fungus Nectria haematococca as a model organism.  Nectria has a broad host range, but its pathogenicity on the garden pea has been shown to require a gene cluster (PEP) located on a conditionally dispensable (CD) chromosome, which is not required for anexic growth. The PEP gene cluster possesses characteristics in common with bacterial pathogenicity islands, which are thought to be transferred horizontally between microbial species. Thus there is considerable interest in the question of whether the PEP cluster, and/or the entire CD chromosome, might have originated by horizontal transfer as well.

Role of internal mRNA methylation - Another research interest of Dr. Kaehler: Messenger RNA undergoes posttranscriptional methylation of both the 5’ cap structure and internally at the N-6 position of certain adenosines. While the cap has been shown to play a role in transport and in translation, little is known about the function of internal methylation sites. We are initiating studies to evaluate possible roles for internal methylation in mRNA regulation and for stability.

Insect Biodiversity - Dr. Larsen is working with students to study the effect of plant community structure and diversity on insect abundance and species richness, looking particularly at butterflies, native bees, and ground beetles, primarily in remnant and planted tallgrass prairies.

Insect Fire Ecology - Dr. Larsen and student collaborators study the impact of prescribed fires in remnant and planted tallgrass prairies along with oak woodlands on insects such as ground beetles. They have found that to maximize insect biodiversity in prairies, prairie managers must vary the use of fire in both timing and intensity (sometimes not burning at all and using mowing or grazing), being sensitive to species that are negatively impacted by burning, while recognizing other species respond positively to fire.

Monarch Butterfly Conservation - Dr. Larsen and students in the Luther entomology lab are working as part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium to help identify native milkweed species most suitable for monarch egg-laying and larval development, and nectar plants most suitable for adult food in Northeast Iowa, with the goals of increasing monarch habitat and monarch butterfly abundance in the Upper Midwest.

Vegetation and fire history on a sand plain in northern Wisconsin - Through the analysis of charcoal and pollen grains in lake sediments, Dr. Lynch and her students are compiling records of vegetation change and forest fire history that will help her understand how pine and oak ecosystems have responded to climate changes over the past several thousand years. With this information, scientists and land use managers will be better able to anticipate how rare sand plain ecosystems will respond to future climate changes.

Population dynamics of Leather wood (Dirca palustris) - Leather wood is a slow-growing shrub that occurs only in high-quality forests on north-facing slopes in northeastern Iowa. Extraordinarily high population densities of white-tailed deer, non-native plants, and climate change all threaten the long-term survival of this plant. Long-term monitoring of leather wood populations in the Decorah area will allow Dr. Lynch to track changes that might otherwise go unnoticed.