Benitez specializes in studies of diversity and function of soil and plant-associated microbial communities and their contributions to plant growth. Research has identified agricultural practices, such as adoption of no-till, cover crops and diversified rotations, among others, as tools to promote build-up and maintenance of healthy soils and plants. That management practices affect structure and diversity of plant-associated and soil microbial communities has been widely documented; however, we are still trying to understand how to best incorporate measures of microbial diversity, activity and function to guide choice of agricultural management practices. Furthermore, specific aspects of the ecology of plant-microbe interactions, as it affects plant health, remain to be understood. Her research program focuses on questions related to a) land management practices effects on plant-associated microbial community dynamics; b) endophythic microbiome establishment and factors affecting endophytic microbiome composition; and c) relationships between plant microbiome diversity and dynamics and plant disease incidence. In addition, she aims to understand how these complex interactions can contribute to the success and estability of microbial inoculants in field settings. To answer these questions, she uses classic microbiology and plant pathology techniques, including high throughput next-generation sequencing for microbial community evaluations; greenhouse and field experiments to assess plant health; and computational analysis required for integrating microbial community, soil and plant health data.
Currently, Benitez is focused on diversified cropping systems, in particular extended rotation sequences (3-4 years) and cover crops within corn and soybean cropping systems. In 2018 the acres planted to corn and soybean in Ohio totaled 8.5 million acres. Hence understanding the relationship between cropping practices, soil and plant health, and the microbiome is of great relevance to the state. Furthermore, she has established collaborations with other faculty and industry partners to explore aspects of beneficial fungi - plant host interactions, with current focus on soybean and tomato as model systems. Finally, in collaboration with researchers at Oklahoma State University and Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas ESPE, they are studying aspects of suppressive soils in potato cropping systems in Ecuador.