Category Archives: Botany and Plant Pathology

The Grape Depression: Powdery Mildew in Willamette Valley Vineyards

Brent at the Foliar Pathology Lab research vineyard where the small plot field trials in his project were conducted.

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes, and when growing grapes for wine both quantity and quality matter. One challenge facing farmers in the Willamette Valley is a plant pathogen: grape powdery mildew. This pathogen can live in a field year-round and emerges to infect grape leaves, flowers and fruits annually. Grape plants infected with powdery mildew suffer low berry yields and mildew may affect the taste of wine. In the Willamette Valley, where vineyards abundant, grape powdery mildew is a big problem. Brent Warneke, a Master’s student in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is studying the effect of fungicide application timing on the reduction in severity of powdery mildew on grapes, and he is our guest on Inspiration Dissemination this week.

Moldy Grapes

A grape bunch severely infected with powdery mildew. Note the berry cracking, powdery appearance, and poor color accumulation.

Brent works at the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Lab with Walt Mahaffee, and his research tests the effect of fungicide application timing on grape powdery mildew control. Timing fungicide applications is especially crucial during the one to three-week window of grapevine flowering. Optimal fungicide application timing can slow the mildew epidemic allowing grape berries to mature and become less susceptible to powdery mildew. Across the Willamette Valley, fungicide application to grapes is a well-known prevention solution for powdery mildew, but less is known about the best fungicide to use and when to spray plants during berry development. The findings of his research are now being validated at a larger scale in commercial vineyards. In the lab, Brent is also studying the mobility of fungicide “through the grapevine,” from tissue to tissue through the air and xylem, and Brent is helping with a project to identify strains of mildew resistant to commonly used fungicides.

 

The Grape State of Colorado 

Brent with a harvest of varnish conk (Ganoderma oregonense), Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum).

Brent hails from Colorado where he spent his early years outside gardening, snowboarding, and hiking. During undergrad at Colorado State University (CSU), Brent majored in Horticulture and held research positions at the Center for Agricultural Resources Research and the Bioenergy Lab. Among his many projects during undergrad, Brent completed a senior thesis project, under the direction of Dr. Courtney Jahn, developing a LAMP-PCR to diagnose Canada thistle rust on infected plants that were not displaying symptoms.

Wine Not?

While at CSU, Brent also began studying viticulture. He liked the challenge and complexity of growing grapes for wine. Brent chose to pursue graduate school at Oregon State because his current program blends plant pathology with viticulture. He’s happy with his decision because Oregon is similar to Colorado for outdoor recreation, not to mention its world class Pinot Noir!

Hear more from Brent this Sunday September, 10 at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis, 88.7FM! Not a local listener? Not sweat! Stream the show live.

Brent on top of South Sister (10,363 ft). Middle and north sister can be seen in the immediate background. In the far background the small peak to the left without snow is Mount Washington , then Mount Jefferson behind north sister and Mount Hood in the background to the right of North Sister.

Unearthing the Unseen: Identifying drivers of fungal diversity in Panamanian rainforests

When our roommates or family members get sick, we try to keep our distance and avoid catching their illness. Plants get ‘sick’ too, and in the natural world, this may actually explain the coexistence and diversity of plant species that we see.

Coexistence

Species coexistence relies on competition between individuals of the same species being larger than competition between individuals of different species. Competition between individuals of the same species must be large enough to keep any species from taking over and outcompeting all other species in the community. However, more recent work has highlighted the role of natural pathogens. Stable coexistence of many species may be favored if individuals of one species cannot live in close proximity to each other due to disease.

Plant Pathogens and Biodiversity

View looking south from the canopy tower at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort over the confluence of the Panama Canal and the Chagres River near Gamboa, Panama.

For example, picture a crowded forest with many adult trees of the same species releasing wind-dispersed seeds (like the helicoptering seeds of a maple). Very few, if any, of the seeds that fall near to the adult trees will germinate and reach maturity. As you walk away from the clump of adult trees, you will begin to find more germinated seeds that reach maturity (Augspurger 1983). These seeds are farther from tough competitors of the same species (adult trees) and are away from the plant pathogens that may be living in the adult root system. In our hypothetical forest, the plant pathogens that feed on young maples are keeping maple from dominating the forest, allowing other species that aren’t affected by the pathogen to thrive; in this way, plant pathogens play a role in the maintenance of biodiversity.

Drivers of Biodiversity

Our guest this week, Tyler Schappe, studies interactions among plants and fungi in the Neotropical forests of Panama. Tyler is broadly interested in what drives the maintenance and diversity of fungal communities, and how this, in turn, can affect tree communities. Tyler spent the summer of 2015 collecting 75 soil cores from three forest plots in Panama. Using DNA sequencing with universal genetic markers, he was then able to identify the fungi within the soil cores to species and functional group (decomposers, pathogens, plant mutualists, etc.). So far, Tyler has found that tree communities and soil nutrients affect the composition and diversity of fungal guilds differently. As expected, guilds that form mutualistic relationships with trees are more strongly correlated with plant communities. Interestingly, soil properties influence the species composition of all fungal guilds, including plant pathogens, pointing to the mediating role of soils as an abiotic filter. Overall, Tyler’s results, along with other research, show that soil fungal communities are an integral component of the plant-soil relationship since they are driven by, and can affect, both. Together, plants, soil, and fungi form a tightly connected three-way relationship, and wanting to understand one of them means having to study all three together.

Tyler’s work with fungal communities in Panama sheds light on belowground interactions and their implications for plant ecology. His research is one piece of evidence that may help us to understand why there are so many plant species, how they coexist, and why some species are common and some are rare. Are plant pathogens significant contributors to species richness and biodiversity? If so, what modulates plant pathogens, and how can that indirectly affect tree communities? To find out more about Tyler’s work check out these two sources from the Journal of Ecology and Science.

Spend sugar to make sugar

Stand of bur oak trees in a remnant oak savanna at Pheasant Branch Conservancy near Middleton, WI in early winter.

At a young age, Tyler began to realize how connected the world was and how plants and animals function in an ecosystem. The functioning of organisms and of ecosystems came into focus for him while in college at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He took a course in plant ecology from Dr. Tom Givnish who described plants in terms of economic trade-offs. For example, energy invested by plants in vertical growth cannot be invested in defense or reproduction; different allocations of resources can be more or less advantageous in different environments. Tyler decided to pursue graduate school at Oregon State while completing a fellowship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where he met his current advisor, Andy Jones.

Tyler is defending his Master’s thesis August, 29 2017!  We are glad he can make time to talk with us on Inspiration Dissemination this Sunday August, 13 at 7 pm. Not a local listener? Stream the show live!

Ways and Means: Attitudes Toward Methods of Restoring American Chestnut Trees

“The Christmas Song” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé is an iconic song in American culture, but most Americans will never experience a chestnut roast (at least not with American chestnuts).

A mighty blight

The American chestnut was a widespread North American native tree that covered nearly 200,000 miles of Appalachian forest. In 1904, the American chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo were dying from a then unknown disease, Chestnut Blight. In the next forty years, Chestnut Blight spread across the estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees. Now American Chestnut trees are seen only as giant stumps, juveniles never reaching maturity, and rarely, adult fruit-bearing trees.

Since the decline of the American chestnut, Appalachian forests have changed. Chestnuts have been replaced by oaks, and it is likely that many organisms that relied on the chestnut trees for food or shelter have had to adapt to new conditions or have been displaced. The loss of the chestnut also led to the loss of financial income for many Appalachian people. In addition to chestnuts as a food source, the American chestnut provided decay resistant timber and tannins for tanning hide. The American chestnut and its decline is remembered through oral and written history. Members of older generations from Appalachia tell stories of enormous trees and later forests of white wooden chestnut skeletons.

Restoring the chestnut

Josh skiing in the mountains of Big Sky, Montana.

The restoration of the chestnut is an active project that faces many challenges. First, few Americans have seen an American chestnut tree, and few are familiar with their decline via Chestnut Blight. Since the restoration of the American chestnut would require policy changes and action across 200,000 miles, spanning multiple state governments, it is necessary to assess the extent the public might disfavor or favor this restoration. Our guest this week,Josh Petit from Forest Ecosystems and Society, is seeking to understand the attitudes of Americans toward the chestnut restoration. In particular, Josh is surveying a sample of the US population to compare attitudes toward a controversial method of chestnut restoration,  the use of genetic engineering.

Ways and Means

You may be familiar with genetic engineering to modify the genome of an organism to achieve a specific goal. Many of the crops we eat have in some way been modified to aid harvest, growth, and/or resistance to pests and disease. The methods for restoring the American chestnut are:

  • Selective breeding with related, blight-resistant Asian chestnuts
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with Asian or other related chestnut genes (cisgenics)
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with foreign genes or genes from wheat (transgenics)

Josh conducting research during a study abroad program in tropical North Queensland, Australia.

It is important to assess the attitudes of the public to transgenics because the introduction of  genes from wheat has been the most successful method at enhancing resistance toward chestnut blight. Recently, negative media has led to the misunderstanding that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have adverse effects on consumers (humans) and ecosystems. However, these claims are not based in sound science and have been refuted. Although GMOs are being supported as alternatives to crop and forest species extinction, ultimately chestnut restoration relies on majority vote in favor or against a specific strategy. Thus, assessing attitudes toward restoration methods is tantamount to restoration efforts.

The Guy for the Job

A native of Ohio, Josh Petit attended Xavier University and majored in Political Science. He credits a Semester at Sea for broadening his world view and exposing him to different cultures. He learned that culture is important in all aspects of daily life. In retrospect, perhaps it is no surprise that he is currently studying an iconic tree and how culture has driven attitudes toward its restoration.

Josh participating in a Fijian traditional village celebration and homestay–taking turns playing guitar.

Josh became interested in ecology, biology, and the interface of the two with humans while working for Q4 International Marketing an ecotourism company in Panama. This lead him to pursue a Master’s in Natural Resources with a marine ecology focus from Virginia Tech. However, his most recent work withOregon Parks and Recreation Department lead him to pursue a PhD at Oregon State University. With the State Parks, Josh conducted surveys in Oregon Parks and sought to connect behavior, impacts, and social science to ecology and recreation. Now at Oregon State University, Josh is working with Mark Needham andGlenn Howe to understand the drivers of attitudes toward using biotechnologies for restoring American chestnut trees.

Hear more about Josh’s research and his journey to now this week on Inspiration Dissemination. Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM on Sunday July, 30 at 7 pm, or live stream the show.

Heliconia: plants with personality

Orange-hatted Dusty Gannon’ (my hummingbird name) visiting Heliconia tortuosa

In the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, first year graduate student Dusty Gannon is studying how Heliconia tortuosa, a tropical plant with long, tubular flowers and vividly-colored bracts (modified leaves that house the flowers), maintains its unique relationship with pollinating hummingbirds. Although hummingbirds universally love nectar, they have diverged into a few distinct functional groups that are characterized by behavior: traplining hummingbirds repeatedly and circuitously visit flowers, often traveling long distances, while territorial hummingbirds are aggressively possessive of flowers in a home range. It turns out that Heliconia tortuosa is picky about which of these groups contributes to its pollination, and preferentially accepts pollen from traplining hummingbirds, specifically those featuring a long, curved bill. Presumably, their bill shape facilitates maximal nectar extraction which is used as a cue by the plant to become receptive to pollen.  Many hummingbirds visit the Heliconia tortuosa flower, but few induce pollination because of the straight shape of their bill. The shape and size of the Heliconia tortuosa flower in relation to the shape and size of the beak of the pollinator hummingbird constitutes the emergence of a complex plant behavior.

Heliconia wagneriana

Heliconia wagneriana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dusty’s research is focused on trying to understand how Heliconia tortuosa evolved the capacity to recognize and preferentially invest in pollination by certain pollinator hummingbirds. His work consists of testing for ‘pollinator recognition’ of pollinators across a select subset of species across the Heliconia genus, comprised of 200-250 species, and subsequently using molecular techniques to infer the presence or absence of pollinator recognition across
 the family. Among these several hundred different species of Heliconia, the flowers are morphologically distinct and vary in size from short to long,  straight to curved (even up to a 90-degree angle!). Dusty’s objective is to determine if pollinator recognition is a common trait among morphologically distinct Heliconia species, and uncover the evolutionary significance of this cryptic specialization. While conducting fieldwork at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, which featured a garden full of Heliconia, Dusty collected over 1,000 styles (the female reproductive organ in flowering plants) to assay pollen-tube growth rates across various treatments by epi-fluorescence microscopy back at OSU.

Tropical montane forest

Unraveling the tangled evolutionary biology of plants and pollinators is critical for understanding how the loss of certain pollinators might impact plant pollination. If a flower is visited by a variety of different pollinators, the loss of one pollinator might not seem like a big deal. However, if only a small number of the total number of pollinators visiting the flower are capable of inducing pollination, the loss of a true pollinator might be devastating for a plant’s ability to reproduce.

A sample of the morphological diversity in Heliconia flowers

As an undergrad at Colorado State University, Dusty studied Ecosystem Science, which consisted of learning about how nutrients and energy flow through an ecosystem. Dusty cites his high school AP Biology teacher as having a major influence on his desire to study science in college. During the first week of his freshman year, Dusty applied to work in a lab doing DNA barcoding; over the span of 4 years, he conducted over 10,000 PCR reactions! Following completion of his undergrad, Dusty planned to climb mountains in South America for a year, but unexpected circumstances expedited his enrollment in graduate school at OSU to pursue research related to pollinator recognition. Following completion of graduate school, Dusty would like to continue in academia as a professor, and possibly open a bread shop featuring a wood-fired oven, equipped with statistical models to ensure a perfect loaf of bread.

Join us on Sunday May 21st at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or stream live to hear more about Dusty’s pollinator recognition research and journey through graduate school.

Keeping Oregon Forests Green: What Swiss Needle Cast Disease is Teaching Us About Forestry

I’ll never forget driving through the steep and windy I5 corridor of the Klamath Mountains when I moved to Oregon. Wet roads bordered by thick fog with protruding trees that were lusciously green. Very, very green. This concept of ‘Keeping Oregon Green’ started as a fire prevention act, and Oregon’s color is a quality that visitors and residents adore. Unfortunately there is sleeping giant that is gaining momentum, slowly turning Oregon’s forests from green to yellow with an eventual needle fall of the iconic state tree. This color change is from a microscopic fungus that all Douglas-fir trees have around the world, but for some reason it’s only harming the trees along the Oregon coast range. Our guest, a 4th year PhD student Patrick Bennett, is peeling away the layers of complexity to reveal why Oregon’s green forests are dwindling.

Aerial view of Douglas-fir stand with Swiss needle cast near Tillamook, Oregon. Chlorotic (yellow) foliage is a major symptom of the disease.

Douglas-fir needles with pseudothecia (fruiting bodies) of the fungus (Phaeocryptopus gaeumannii) emerging from the stomata.

It is estimated that Swiss Needle Cast disease is affecting nearly 1,000,000 acres in Oregon and Washington alone leading to economic losses estimated at $128 million per year. The fungus covers the stomata, openings in the needles, used to exchange air and water essential for plant metabolism. As more of these stomata become clogged the tree cannot make enough glucose so the needle dies, turns yellow, and eventually the needle falls off entirely. Douglas-fir trees typically keep needles for five years, but in heavily affected areas the needles last one year before falling off leaving the tree extremely thin and frail. Even though the fungus does not directly cause death, it leaves our iconic state tree highly susceptible to drought, beetles, nutrient limitations, and wildfires.

This disease was first discovered in Switzerland, hence the name Swiss Needle Cast, in the 1920’s. At that time it was only negatively affecting Douglas-fir trees planted outside their native habitat. But since the 1980’s the natively planted Douglas-fir trees, within a narrow band parallel to the coast range, are showing annual growth decreases by as much as 50%. Recently there have been advancements in molecular biology and computing power that allow researchers to identify the genetic heritage of pathogens. Using these tools scientists can focus on population genetics to figure out why there is such a discrete area affected along the Oregon coast range. Some evidence points to  warming winters and fungal-subspecies expansion as reasons for the spread of this fungal disease. But Patrick has indications to suggest it’s death by a thousand cuts and begs the question of whether the future of forestry is in danger.

Growing up in southern California Patrick wasn’t exposed to the forests he studies today. It wasn’t until he attended Humboldt State University where he got his first exposure to towering canopies and ecology. His first research experience was in the Lassen Volcanic National Park in California where his advisor, Dr. Patricia Siering, pushed him to develop his own scientific study. Needless to say he was hooked on science and after taking a mycology class he also knew he was jazzed on studying mushrooms so he continued his passions that lead him to Oregon State University.

Dr. Patricia Siering (Humboldt State University – Biology Department) collecting boiling hot sulfuric acid from Boiling Springs Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California with the help of undergraduates and graduate students.

Patrick Bennett is a 4th year PhD student in Dr. Jeff Stone’s lab in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology housed in the College of Agricultural Sciences where he is investigating how population genetics can be used to better understand the factors contributing to the recent emergence of Swiss Needle Cast as a damaging forest pathogen in the native range of Douglas-fir. Be sure to tune in Sunday April 30th at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or by listening live.

Searching for viruses that make plants sick

Ripening sweet cherries in Mosier, Oregon. Photo credit: Lauri Lutes

When plants get sick, they can’t be treated or cured in the same way as people who receive medicine for an illness.  Plants require specialized care by scientists who are uniquely equipped to study and treat their diseases.  As a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Jay Pscheidt in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Lauri Lutes is a plant doctor looking for viruses that infect sweet cherry trees in Oregon. She is able to identify an infected sweet cherry tree by looking at symptoms, including yellow rings or discolored mottling on the leaves, or fruit that is smaller than normal. To pinpoint the identity of the virus, further tests in the lab are performed.

Mottling and ringspot symptoms on sweet cherry, Prunus avium, in Umpqua Valley, Oregon. Photo Credit: Jay W. Pscheidt

Sweet cherries are one of Oregon’s top commodities, with 12,300 acres of sweet cherry production near the Dalles and Hood River, and 3,200 acres in the Willamette valley. There are a few viruses that the Oregon Department of Agriculture looks for each year, including Plum pox virus, a quarantine pathogen in the United States. However, if sweet cherry trees are infected with something other than the most common or most damaging viruses, they may never receive a diagnosis! Lauri works with the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission to determine where diseased sweet cherry trees are located in Oregon. During her time at OSU, Lauri has discovered a virus infecting sweet cherry trees in the Dalles region that had never been reported in Oregon!

Lauri Lutes collecting leaf samples from sweet cherry trees in The Dalles, Oregon. Photo credit: Lauri Lutes

As an undergraduate student majoring in biology at Indiana University South Bend, Lauri discovered her passion for plant biology after taking a plant systematics course. Her undergraduate research consisted of studying fungal pathogens in a native waterleaf plant that grows in the forest floor of Indiana. Lauri attributes her positive experiences in undergraduate classes and research to female professors who provided encouragement and strong mentoring. After the birth of her daughter during her senior year of college, Lauri’s path toward attending grad school diverged, and she began working at a plant pathogen diagnostics company, Agdia, Inc. There, she used magnetic particles to purify viruses from plant material and co-developed a Technical Support Department. Curiosity driven, she found that she still wanted a deeper foundation in plant pathology, which led her to pursue graduate work at OSU.

View of Mount Hood from sweet cherry orchard in Parkdale, Oregon. Photo credit: Lauri Lutes

In addition to her work with sweet cherry tree viruses, Lauri is enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in College and University Teaching (GCCUT) program, and is active in science communication, having recently been selected to attend ComSciCon-PNW (Communicating Science Conference) in Seattle. After grad school, Lauri is considering teaching at the university level and continuing her involvement in science communication. As the first person in her family to complete an advanced degree, she hopes to inspire and expose her daughter to educational opportunities she might not have had otherwise.

Please join us this Sunday, April 2nd on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM at 7 pm PST, to hear much more about Lauri’s journey through grad school, and her research about sweet cherry tree viruses. 

You can also stream this episode live at www.kbvr.com/listen.

View from a sweet cherry orchard in the Hood River, Oregon. Photo credit: Lauri Lutes

A very Hungry Caterpillar, a very Tenacious Scientist

Tyria jacobaeae (cinnabar moth) caterpillars chowing down on Senecio triangularis at Marys Peak summer 2014

Tyria jacobaeae (cinnabar moth) adult Photographer: Eric Coombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our guest this week is Madison Rodman who recently finished her Master’s degree in Botany and Plant Pathology. Growing up as the daughter of crime lab scientist and an ecologist in North Dakota, Madison told us that there was not a singular moment when she knew she wanted to do science; she always loved the outdoors. It is no surprise that Madison is a go-getter and a very organized scientist herself, but her science story is less than typical. Madison’s first research experience involved hiking through the jungles of Thailand surveying for tigers! While wildly adventurous, this trip taught Madison that field work is not all rainbows and tiger stripes, but that there are venomous snakes in the jungle and tigers are good at hiding. What drew Madison to this field trip was the opportunity to see the organism in its habitat, but she also realized that all the lovely jungle plants were hiding in plain sight and waiting to be surveyed as well.

Madison Rodman poses with her research organism Senecio triangularis summer 2016

Upon returning to Minneapolis to continue her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, Madison focused on Plant Biology and realized that plant-insect interactions were something that interested her. She applied for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Michigan, and spent the summer investigating the impact of atmospheric CO2 levels on plant chemistry and how changes in leaf defense chemistry affects herbivores. This was the pièce de résistance of a science project combining: whole organism science, plant-insect interactions, and climate change biology. Things were really coming together for Madison, and she knew she wanted to go on to graduate school and continue studying plant-insect interactions.

Manipulative experiment in action near Big Lake summer 2015

 

She did just that, and much much more, at Oregon State. Madison defended her Master’s thesis this winter, through which she studied the risk of a biocontrol agent, the cinnabar moth, on a native plant, Senecio triangularis, or arrow-leaf groundsel. These biocontrol caterpillars, will chomp the European tansy ragwort, an invasive weed, to the ground and look pretty cute doing it, but in some parts of Oregon they have recently switched to feeding on the native arrow-leaf groundsel. The good news: the tansy buffet is in low supply; the bad news: arrow-leaf groundsel is on the menu. How risky is the annual feeding of cinnabar moth caterpillars on arrow-leaf groundsel populations? Can caterpillar feeding have negative effects on the reproduction and survival of arrow-leaf groundsel? Both the arrow-leaf groundsel and the cinnabar moth are here to stay, but this native plant might be in trouble as annual temperatures continue to rise. You’ll have to tune in to hear more about the cinnabar moth and Madison’s field work in the high Cascades and Coast Range of Oregon. We promise it is all rainbows and moths…

Madison in her native habitat near Mount Hood summer 2016

Also at Oregon State, Madison has also been able to practice and boost her teaching skills through the Graduate Certificate in College and University Teaching (GCCUT) program. She has always loved communicating science, from being an undergraduate teaching assistant at U of MN to intern at Wind Cave National Park. Madison hopes to stay involved in teaching and community outreach after grad school when she relocates to Minnesota. We’re so excited to present her perspective on graduate school and share her science story.

Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM this Sunday February, 5 at 7 pm PST to hear Madison’s story and learn about plant-insect interactions. You will not want to miss her take on graduate school, biocontrol, and beyond.

Not a local listener? Don’t fret, you can stream this episode live at www.kbvr.com/listen.

Inspiration Dissemination is happy to announce its addition to the KBVR archive as a podcast! Listen to this episode whenever and where ever you have internet access. Link TBA.

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds

Panorama of the whitebark pine seedling at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center (USFS)

Did you know that whitebark pine is the highest elevation tree here in the Pacific Northwest? If you have driven the Rim Road of Crater Lake National Park, you may have noticed a huge gnarly tree lovingly known by few as the “Grandmother” whitebark pine. These trees withstand harsh winds and cold temperatures, giving them a krummholz or “crooked wood” appearance. Some grow nearly horizontal.

Zolton’s favorite whitebark pine at the rim of Crater Lake

As one of the few tree species that grow at high elevations, whitebark pine acts as an ecosystem foundation species, making it possible for other plants, fungi, and animals to utilize higher elevation environments. Growing together, a population of whitebark pines form ecological islands and promote biodiversity in subalpine areas. For example, the Clark’s Nutcracker and whitebark pine have been coevolving for eons. The Clark’s Nutcracker is the only bird that can break open the pine cones of whitebark pine. While the bird eats some of the seeds, it also cashes them and can disperse the seeds many miles away. Other species such as rodents and bears eat the seeds as well.

Much more research is needed to fully understand the ecological importance of whitebark pine in its characteristic ecosystem. However, recently whitebark pine research is focused on another interaction, that of whitebark pine with an invasive plant pathogen, white pine blister rust. Since the 1900s, this pathogen has dramatically reduced populations of whitebark pine and other 5-needle pines of North America. This means that whitebark pine populations and the biodiversity islands it forms at high elevations are in trouble.

Zolton with his experimental seedlings at Dorena.

Fortunately, some populations show natural resistance to the pathogen, and our guest, Zolton Bair from the department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is comparing the transcriptomes, the collection of genes expressed as RNA, of resistant and susceptible trees to understand tree defense against white pine blister rust. Be on the lookout for his dissertation defense this year!

As a teenager, Zolton loved collecting and identifying mushrooms. Through a class called magical mushrooms, mischievous molds he realized that fungi are very important to humans as food, medicine, and can be problematic for farmers. He became interested in plant pathology after conducting undergraduate research in a mycology lab that focused on the spread of fungal spores between agricultural fields.

Experimental plot: Keep off!

You do not want to miss this week’s episode of Inspiration Dissemination with our guest Zolton Bair. Tune into KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM this Sunday January, 22 at 7 pm to hear about Zolton’s journey from barefoot mushroom hunting in Virginia to studying plant pathology here at Oregon State, and we promise you won’t be disappointed to learn more about the awesome tree story of whitebark pine.

Not a local listener? Follow this link to stream the show live.

Mosquito soup in the Brazilian rainforest

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Deforestation in Brazil due to cultivation of monoculture crops, such as soybean, has profoundly impacted wildlife populations. In the lab of Taal Levi in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, wildlife biologist Aimee Massey has adopted a quantitative approach to studying this impact. During her first and second year of graduate school, Aimee traveled to Brazil for fieldwork and data collection, collaborating with researchers from Brazil and the UK. During this trip, she collected 70,000 biting flies, including mosquitoes and sandflies, by engineering 200 fly traps constructed from 2-liter soda bottles, netting, and rotting beef. Aimee installed biting traps throughout 40 individual forest patches, which are regions delineated by their physical characteristics, ranging approximately in size from the OSU campus to the state of Rhode Island.

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Subsequent DNA analysis on biting flies provides a relatively unbiased source of wildlife tracking, since mosquitoes serve as a repository of DNA for the wildlife they have feasted upon. DNA analysis also provides information regarding diseases that may be present in a particular patch, based on the bacterial and viral profile. For example, sandflies are carriers of protozoa such as leishmania, which cause the disease leishmaniasis. To analyze DNA, Aimee uses bioinformatics and metabarcoding, which is a technique for assessing biodiversity from an environmental sample containing DNA. Different species of animals possess characteristic DNA sequences that can be compared to a known sequence in an online database. By elucidating the source of the DNA, it is possible to determine the type of wildlife that predominates in a specific patch, and whether that animal may be found preferentially in patches featuring deforestation or pristine, primary rain forest.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Aimee completed her undergraduate studies at University of Maine, where she quickly discovered she wanted to study biology and chemistry in greater depth. She planned to attend med school, and was even accepted to a school in her junior year; however, an introductory fieldwork course in Panama spent exploring, doing fieldwork, and trekking made a deep impression on her, so she decided to apply to graduate school instead. Aimee completed a Masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Michigan, during which time she spent 4 months at the Mpala Research Centre in the middle of the Kenyan plateau, just north of the Masai Mara. Following completion of her Masters degree, Aimee spent a year as a research assistant at the University of New Hampshire working with small mammals. Before beginning her PhD studies at OSU, Aimee spent two months in Haines, Alaska doing fieldwork with her future PI, Taal Levi. After she finishes her PhD, Aimee plans to focus on conservation work in New England where she is originally from.

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Tune in on October 23rd, 2016 at 7PM on the radio at 88.7FM KBVR, or stream live, to hear more about Aimee’s adventures in Brazil, and why her graduate work is shaping our understanding of how deforestation impacts biodiversity.

 

We Answer to the Nucleotide Chain Gang

This week on Inspiration Dissemination our featured guest is our very own Zhian Kamvar aka DJ CATGAG the co-host and co-founder of our weekly broadcast. Before his radio and phytopathological fame, Zhian was an eager biologist and a DJ by a different name! All will unfold during this week’s episode, but I will supply some teasers to get the oospore rolling.

Zhian got interested in biology while in high school in California where he wanted to become a mortician…yes we all were very surprised (but not really) to learn this. Like any aspiring mortician, Zhian used the internet to find out how he should focus his studies and achieve his goal. Anatomy and Physiology were high on the list. Zhian was fascinated with many aspects of human biology particularly respiration and circulatory processes that “just happen.” For example, the human heart pump blood throughout the body 80 times per minute with no conscious intention of the individual. That was only the tip of the iceberg and his enthusiasm continued to grow while in his first genetics course in college at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. This is when everything changed for Zhian and he decided to forgo his dream of becoming a mortician and focus on genetics. After a rough start at scaling the learning curve, Zhian aced Advanced Genetics and began an undergraduate research project investigating the that genes are responsible for making cultivars of corn grow and develop differently. A pivotal and proud moment for Zhian was presenting a poster at a national conference; this was only one of the many conferences that would follow.

Zhian seems very normal and boring, but wait!

Zhian poses with a petri dish containing a cultured specimen of the plant destroyer Phytophthora syringae. (Photo Credit: Lindsey Thiessen)

During his time at Truman State University, Zhian stumbled upon and promptly crashed into a gig as a radio DJ for the Truman State College Radio Station-KTRM “The Edge”. Zhian’s shows hosted the metal, vinyl, and classical genres. One of Zhian’s shows was a morning show called “Up Late with a Vampire,” a classical music hour for your morning commute in nowhere Missouri. Thus began our own DJ CATGAG’s life as a radio DJ subjecting us to his diverse musical taste. Zhian is not only a music connoisseur, from the common to the obscure, but also Zhian made and produced some of his own music, OH YES we have samples to play this Sunday! First, Zhian mixed electronic tunes as…wait for it…DJ Poopslice! Then his sound truly took form as Not Jeremy Jones where he explored harsh noise and “poplematic” (problematic pop) music.

Also, worth mentioning that after graduating from Truman State Zhian took a solo trip to Daegu, South Korean where he taught English for 3 years. In South Korea, Zhian did a lot of reading in his free time and decided he really missed participating science and research. He decided it was then time to apply to graduate school.

Zhian demonstrating functionalities of his software package, poppr, to a workshop at the American Phytopathological Society meeting in 2015 (Photo Credit: Sydney Everhart) (From twitter: https://twitter.com/SydneyEverhart/status/627546826246221824)

Zhian demonstrating functionalities of his software package, poppr, to a workshop at the American Phytopathological Society meeting in 2015 (Photo Credit: Sydney Everhart) (From twitter)

Lucky for us, (and I mean that sincerely) he was accepted to Oregon State University Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. Zhian is part of the lab of Nik Grünwald where he studies the population genetics of plant destroyers in the genus Phytophthora, specifically Phytophthora syringae and Phytophthora ramorum (this one is the pathogen responsible for Sudden Oak Death). These organisms are fungi-like and usually reproduce asexually, but they do have sex when conditions are good. His dissertation focuses on diversity of Phytophthora populations. Basically, if a population is very diversified than the effect of the pathogen on the plants involved is going to be harder to manage; whereas a population of clones may be taken out uniformly. In addition to interpreting population genetics, Zhian has been working to develop software tools that will help others to analyze data to study the genetics of other organisms. His R package called poppr allows users to analyze and visualize the distribution of genetic diversity in a population. Zhian does very great work, and we are sad to know that soon he will finish his dissertation and leave the Inspiration Dissemination team.

This is an episode you will not want to miss. Tune in at 7 pm on Sunday, August 14 to KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or stream the show live.