students use greenhouse for research
The greenhouse at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is more than just a place to grow plants. It is also a space where students can learn and grow and where professors facilitate research.
UNK junior Macy Hill, a biology major from McCook, has been working in the greenhouse since January as part of the Undergraduate Research Fellows program. Under the guidance and in collaboration with biology professor Paul Twigg, Hill searches for data in different plant soils. “This is something that I’m really interested in because I really enjoyed Dr Twigg’s Biology II class,” she said. “I really liked him as a teacher and the greenhouse is super fun.”
Hill, who plans to attend optometry school after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, said she is learning more about the scientific process by researching plants. Scientific techniques used to study the molecular biology of plants are applicable to anything that contains DNA, Twigg noted. “People think plants don’t apply to their lives,” Twigg said. “In molecular biology, the techniques for doing things with plant DNA are exactly the same as human DNA and animal DNA because structurally they are exactly the same.”
UNK research is funded by an EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation, and Hill’s project is in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture. This is part of a larger project led by the Center for Root and Rhizobiome Innovation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to improve crop yields.
Hill also hopes to help farmers through another research project she launched in January. For this project, she collaborated with Julie Shaffer, professor of biology at UNK, to develop a bacterial inoculum beneficial for the growth and yields of corn.
To improve crop yields, Twigg and Hill are studying how plant growth affects populations of bacteria in the soil. They will also determine which populations of bacteria best support plant growth. “Bacteria in the soil generally interact with the roots in a beneficial way to help break down minerals in the soil or to feed on things that come off the roots,” Twigg said.
UNK researchers collect soil samples from corn and switchgrass fields managed by the University of Nebraska Research, Extension and Education Center in eastern Nebraska near Mead . Twigg has collected numerous samples over the previous four years of the project, and he and Hill plan to collect an additional 300 or more samples before the project ends. Funding for the project ends in May 2022.
The couple take soil samples at different times of the year from several fields that receive varying rates of nitrogen fertilizer treatments. “The diversity of bacteria there could be affected by the rotation of corn with switchgrass and vary at certain times of the season with fertilization,” Twigg explained.
After removing 2-foot-long soil cores from the earth, Hill and Twigg cut them into pieces – 10 centimeters from the topsoil, 20 centimeters from the middle part, and 30 centimeters from the bottom. They freeze carrots and take small samples from each segment when they are ready to isolate DNA from soil bacteria.
Several times a day, Hill places the DNA solutions she creates on a spectrometer, which measures the amount of DNA in samples. So far, she has observed that samples closest to the surface tend to have higher levels of bacteria. “This is what you would expect given the air and water supply,” Twigg noted. Hill said this scientific process taught her to be more independent and confident in her work.
“Sometimes when you go to labs in class, you feel like you’re doing random things that you might never do again. But when I’m here, we do it because of it, and this new process that I’m in is because of it, ”she said. “It makes more sense. This is all for a reason that I now understand and can start doing on my own, which is really cool. “
The next step for Hill is to learn how to analyze the types of bacteria in the soil. But first, a central genomics facility will sequence the billions of DNA molecules that Hill and Twigg have isolated. Their analysis will be combined with existing yield data collected by the USDA. “We can start to get a feel for what a healthy soil bacteria population looks like, so it really benefits the growth of corn,” Twigg said.
Hill’s personal research project stems from his research with Twigg. Instead of studying bacteria, she examines the differences in the root system of corn depending on the type of soil and whether the plant has been inoculated with a bacterial solution.
During the spring semester, she used the UNK greenhouse to grow corn plants in different types of substrates – two in topsoil, two in sand, and two in calcined clay. Hill inoculated half of the plants with the bacteria Shaffer grew for her. After eight weeks of growth, she harvested the roots and shoots.
Hill uses a specialized scanner to analyze root systems; however, this equipment was destroyed when the Bruner Hall of Science at UNK was flooded in February. She plans to complete her project when the university receives her new scanner.
In the meantime, she has examined the surface and the tips of the roots which she has already scanned. As a preliminary, Twigg said it appears the bacterial inoculum improved root growth. Hill will present his early findings, along with advances in microbiome research, at this week’s Plant Biology Worldwide Summit, a virtual event hosted by the American Society of Plant Biologists.
Serving the campus
In addition to the research, Hill helped Twigg grow flowers, herbs and vegetables in the greenhouse. They sold the plants to UNK employees in May, raising $ 2,300, half of which was donated to the campus pantry.
Hill beautified a sidewalk outside the greenhouse with flowers that were not sold for sale and planted a patch of meadow in front of the building. She and Twigg also showed the flora at PAWS University, the summer camps based on the program UNK hosts for elementary school students in the area.
Currently, they are growing blue and golden flowers, which they will plant on the south side of the greenhouse. Hill said working in the greenhouse and sharing her knowledge with the children was satisfying. “I loved seeing the plants grow, take care of them and know that their life is only there because you support them,” she said.
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University of Nebraska Kearney