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Wesley A Bickford, PhD

My research interests lie in wetland ecology, invasive species, and plant-microbial interactions. Specifically, I explore new and innovative strategies for managing invasive plants that use molecular biology, community ecology, and plant-soil interactions as a foundation. These management strategies are all focused on adding new tools to complement conventional methods to combat invasive species.

Intervention of microbial symbiosis. Microbes are everywhere. In humans, they are vastly important to health and bodily function. Likewise, bacteria and fungi play hugely important roles in nutrient availability in soils, nutrient acquisition by plants, and plant tolerances to extreme conditions. Many of these microbial interactions could make invasive plants more competitive and aggressive. Therefore, management approaches that target microbial interactions could decrease the expansion of invasive species. We are working on developing such management tools by testing the impacts of disruption in microbial symbiosis on invasive plant health, nutrient acquisition, and expansion. 

Genomics and Gene Silencing. Invasive species excel relative to their neighbors in many cases due to superior traits. In plants, invasives tend to grow taller, denser, faster, and have higher reproductive rate. All of these traits have a genetic basis, so we are working on ways to “switch them off” using a process known as gene silencing. Gene silencing is a form of genetic biocontrol that blocks expression of certain genes without altering the host’s genetic code. It can be thought of as a bioherbicide that works in a species-specific manner to target undesirable traits. We are using genomics to identify the genes that underlie the most troublesome traits in invasive plants and developing cutting-edge vectors to carry silencing constructs into plant cells. This work will result in new management tools to slow the spread of invasive plants.

Submergence Management Using Historically High Great Lakes Water Levels. Water levels in the Great Lakes are currently at historic highs and expected to continue rising in the near future. Phragmites australis expansion in the Great Lakes basin got a boost from a period of low lake levels in the 2000s and early 2010s, expanding from shorelines into exposed bottomlands, creating dense monocultures with extensive root and rhizome systems. With rising waters since 2013, many Phragmites populations have been submerged, presumably facilitating natural dieback. Record high water levels may offer a unique opportunity to control large swaths of Phragmites across the basin by cutting stems under the water to drown the plant. It is well-established that completely submerging stems for extended periods of time can kill Phragmites. However, managers are unsure how long the significant belowground rhizome biomass remains viable and able to re-sprout and/or spread, especially where a significant portion of the clone extends into emergent marsh zones, allowing it to transport gases through the rhizome and potentially preserve the submerged sections. We are conducting a series of experiments to address these uncertainties and explore the opportunities to employ this management technique across the Great Lakes basin.

Professional Experience

  • Biologist, 2020-Present, USGS - Great Lakes Science Center, Ann Arbor, MI

  • Pathways Ecologist, 2014-2020, USGS - Great Lakes Science Center, Ann Arbor, MI

  • Wetland Research Technician, 2013-2014, USGS - Great Lakes Science Center, Ann Arbor, MI

  • NOAA Coastal Management Fellow, 2011-2012, New Jersey Office of Coastal Management, Trenton, NJ

Education and Certifications

  • Ph.D. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan 2020

  • M.S. Wetland Science, University of Maryland 2011

  • B.S. Environmental Science (Ecosystem Science), Indiana University 2007

Science and Products