Plant Microbiology Lab: Using Symbiosis to Help the Earth

Gold logoMy laboratory focuses on pressing environmental issues and possible “green” solutions. Our three main research interests are in using natural plant-microbe partnerships to:

1) improve plant growth

2) remove environmental pollutants

3) improve the sustainability of bioenergy production

Click here to download a detailed overview of our lab's work

Reasearch Interests:


Plant-Microbes for Improved Plant Growth and Environmental Sustainability

• Nitrogen (N) is an essential nutrient for plant growth. But since chemical fertilizers are produced using fossil fuels, excess N fertilizer in soils can be converted by soil microbes to nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, and fertilizers in agricultural run-off can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, a more environmentally-sustainable way of improving crop growth is needed.

• Plants growing in natural, nutrient-limited conditions may rely more on symbiosis, partnerships with microbes, to obtain the nutrients they need for growth.

• My lab studies the pioneering plant species, poplar (cottonwood) and willow, that naturally thrive in nutrient-limited areas

• We have isolated and studied many different bacteria and yeast from within these wild-grown trees and studied their symbiotic properties

• These microbes improve the growth of many other plants such as grasses, corn, rice, trees, bell peppers, tomatoes, and more, without reduced requirements for fertilizers and water


Removing Environmental Pollutants

• Standard environmental solutions such as excavation and pump-and-treat are often far too expensive to be used

• Phytoremediation is the use of plants to remove pollutants

• When pollutants are too toxic, adding natural microbes that can break down the pollutant can help phytoremediation work much better

Environmentally and Economically Sustainable Bioenergy Production

• The plant biomass of choice needs to be region-specific. For the Pacific Northwest, hybrid poplar is the fastest-growing, high biomass plant for biofuel production

• With funding from the USDA/AFRI program, a strong research program for sustainable biofuels from poplar is underway:

• By using natural microbial partners from wild poplar, we may be able to increase production in an environmentally-friendly way. Bioenergy or biofuels could be produced with fewer inputs since these microbes provide fixed nitrogen and bioavailable phosphate, and increase drought tolerance.

• Some of the microbes within poplar can produce valuable biochemicals and biofuels

WP1 oil production



Latest News

May 22, 2015 - Check out the latest article in ScienceMag about the Doty Lab's efforts to establish acceptance of the importance of nitrogen-fixing endophytes. Click on the News tab for all the latest activites of our lab.

Professor Sharon Lafferty Doty

sharon picProf. Doty’s education is in genetics, microbiology, and plant biochemistry. She has published over forty papers and given presentations nationally and internationally on her research. For more information, see her C.V. She is the current Chair of the working group on environmental applications of the International Poplar Commission, a branch of the United Nations. At UW, she is part of the MCB graduate program and the Astrobiology program. Professor Doty is part of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) in the new College of the Environment

Professor Doty is passionate about helping the environment through her research but is always
limited by insufficient funding. While medical research brings in millions of dollars in federal
funding, environmental science research receives comparatively little. Doty’s research has profound
implications for helping the environment by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers,improving
the growth of agricultural and bioenergy plants in natural ways, producing biofuels and biochemicals
sustainably, removing harmful pollutants, and promoting the use of trees for increased carbon
sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases that impact climate change, and protection of rivers
through riparian buffers. Graduate student research projects to develop cost-effective solutions for removing carcinogenic arsenic and PAHs from local areas are currently unfunded. Projects for better understanding the symbiosis that allows plants to grow so well in natural environments without fertilizers are also under-funded. You can help through a fully tax-deductible donation to support this important environmental science research. Click on the “Donate” tab for more information.

Contact Us

For any questions or comments about the lab, contact Sharon Doty at:

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