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.

Developmental Research - Dr. Kraus is studying a Drosophila gene, Acp76A, whose expression is both sex and tissue-specific. It is limited to the male accessory gland of the genital tract. The protein which this gene encodes belongs to the serpin superfamily of serine protease inhibitors and is transferred to females during mating. The goal of the experiments he is currently doing with students is to obtain mutant alleles of Acp76A, then study the phenotype of flies carrying the mutant alleles. The isolation of mutants which do not produce Acp76A is important in order to establish the functionality of this gene identification of the basic biochemical processes that occur in the female reproductive tract following mating. Drosophila is an excellent system in which to study the role of male proteins transferred to females during mating because of the ease of isolating mutants in specific genes, and the possibility of using mutants to pull out other genes involved in the same biochemical processes and pathways.

Insect Biodiversity - Dr. Larsen is working with students to study the effect of plant community diversity on insect biodiversity, currently studying the prairie planting in the right of way of US-52 from Decorah and north to the Minnesota state line. This work is funded by the Iowa DOT Living Roadway Trust Fund.

Prairie Insect Fire Ecology - Dr. Larsen and student collaborators study the impact of prescribed fires in original and reconstructed tallgrass prairies 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.

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.

Aquatic Insects of NE Iowa - In 2004, Luther alumnus Dr. Michael Osterholm began a major stream restoration project in Waterloo Creek northwest of Dorchester, Iowa in Allamakee County. Since 2004, Dr. Larsen has worked on this project involving streambank restoration, establishment of native prairie in riparian areas, and restoration of oak savanna in upland forests. Since 2005, we have been monitoring benthic macroinvertebrate communities in Waterloo Creek, Duck Creek, and Brook Creek on site, and comparing those communities to South Pine Creek, a high quality stream containing the only known remnant native population of brook trout in NE Iowa. We have also been monitoring ground beetle and butterfly communities in the prairie reconstruction and oak savanna restoration. Student research on this project has been funded by the M.J. McElroy Foundation, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.