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NAU IGERT students and faculty featured in documentary


Northern Arizona University (NAU) IGERT faculty and students are featured in a new 56 minute eco-documentary film called “A Thousand Invisible Cords” that describes the ground-breaking research that lead to the development of the field of community and ecosystem genetics. The theme of the NAU IGERT involves integration of the scales of biological organization from genes to ecosystems and many student projects are featured in the documentary. The research described in the film focuses on the importance of genetic variation within dominant or “foundation” plant species to community and ecosystem processes. These concepts were initially developed by NAU IGERT Co-PI and mentor, Dr. Thomas Whitham, through studies of the cottonwood trees critically important to riverside ecosystems. Subsequent research funded by NSF over the last thirty years has shown that genetically different cottonwoods affect diverse communities including ~700 insect species, the microbial community in the soil, lichens on tree trunks, fungi that live in the twigs and on the roots of trees, the plant community that surrounds the cottonwoods, the birds that feed on the insects, and the beavers that selectively fell trees with specific traits. The importance of genetics also extends to ecosystem processes such as productivity and decomposition. Thus, a small change in the genetic code of a species of tree can have cascading effects on communities and ecosystems.

The research depicted in the film not only involves NAU IGERT students and faculty, but also features researchers from other parts of the US and the world. Furthermore, while the emphasis of the film is on the scientific basis of genes to environment integration, it also describes the importance of this perspective to management issues such as climate change, preservation of biodiversity and ecological restoration. More information about the film, including a video clip, can be found at: A Thousand Invisible Cords.

The film was produced by the NAU IDEA lab under the direction of Mr. Daniel Boone and Mr. Ryan Belnap. Funding was provided by NSF and NAU. The film premiered at NAU on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 to a full house at the Cline Library Auditorium. It will be aired by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) within the next six months. Although many NAU IGERT students/associates were involved in the research depicted in the film (e.g., Helen Bothwell, Ashley Craig, Luke Evans, Dana Ikeda, Matthew Lau, Louis Lamit, David Smith, and Adam Wymore), only Evans, Lau and Smith are shown in the film itself. Featured NAU IGERT faculty include Drs. Thomas Whitham, Steve Shuster, Gery Allan, Jane Marks, Amy Whipple and Catherine Gehring.

Address Goals

The film explains complex concepts in a simple way in order to expand the scientific literacy of the general public. To engage non-scientists, the film’s producers have reduced the amount of scientific jargon and illustrated each point with exquisite imagery. The goal of the film is to describe an important scientific integration (genes to environment interrelationships), as well as the research processes that lead to that integration, from technological innovations to the importance of communication among scientists from different disciplines and perspectives.