American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award 2021

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E. Toby Kiers

The Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award is given annually to an active midcareer scientist who has made significant contributions to the knowledge of a particular ecosystem or group of organisms and who, through this work, has illuminated key principles of evolutionary biology and an enhanced appreciation of natural history. The winner of the Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award in 2021 is E. Toby Kiers, University Research Chair and Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

The story of Toby Kiers’ research, like that of Edward O. Wilson, is a story of creative work on difficult subjects. Kiers studies how plants interact with their root symbionts, specifically addressing the very big questions of how and why organisms cooperate with one another. Her work has revealed the enormous sophistication of cooperative interactions. Kiers has shown how symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia) will attempt to “cheat” their legume hosts and how the plants, in turn, can discriminate among bacterial species and suffocate those that do not provide enough nitrogen. In the other major type of root symbiont system, mycorrhizal fungi and their host plants, Kiers has shown how the fungi can hoard nutrients, discriminate among hosts, and trade resources to manipulate the pay-offs they receive. She has expanded her study of mutualisms to the endemic ant farmers and their plants on the island of Fiji and shown, again, the sophisticated ways in which this mutualism is manipulated by both parties to their mutual benefit. Kiers has used her deep knowledge of both bacterial and fungal symbioses to advance and test broad theory about the evolution of cooperation.

These discoveries were facilitated by Kiers’ own technological innovations, which advanced the understanding of the natural history and organismal biology of species that have traditionally been difficult to observe and study. She used fluorescent quantum dots to label nutrients and observe their flow through fungal networks. Kiers developed microfluid methods to test microbial “decision making.” She and her colleagues built an imaging robot that tracked the formation of symbiotic fungal networks across 40 root samples in vitro and, simultaneously, quantified the speed and direction of nutrient flows within those fungal networks.

The symbioses between plants and microbes play vital roles in agriculture and Kiers has brought her talent for creative research to this realm as well. She and her collaborators have introduced the concept of “Darwinian Agriculture” as a novel approach to agroecosystems. Kiers also developed a framework for characterizing microbial functions in these systems, incorporating robotics and machine learning. She has also explored how the loss of biodiversity can be linked to the collapse of symbiotic networks and the effects of climate change on those networks.

Kiers is also a gifted communicator of science and a champion of enhancing the public perception of science. She transmits her great passion for understanding the how and why of organisms living belowground and out of sight. Her TED talk has been enormously popular and, in The Netherlands, she is building a network of scientists, artists, and educators to help bring the lessons from microbes to society.

Kiers’ ability to combine path-breaking science, artistic engagement, and public education reflects the multifaceted excellence that defined Edward O. Wilson’s career, making her a worthy recipient of this award.

The Edward O. Wilson Award Committee: Joseph Travis (chair), Ingrid Parker, Daniel Simberloff