Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Initiation

It has certainly been an interesting few months. Upon arrival at NCSU to study soil science I figured I would have some time to absorb information about my project, sit down to plan out a timeline of events, and THEN actually start working.

Getting to this point was the easy part. See more below.
Nope. Turns out that's not how graduate studies work - especially not mine. I had a couple of weeks to plan, but between classes, reading, research, and familiarizing myself with the locality I felt like I didn't spend nearly enough time learning what I was doing. Combine that with the impending shutdown of all of the facilities I was using and you get a rush to complete the initial stages of a project. I was basically learning as I was doing. That's a sometimes fun, sometimes dangerous approach. Thankfully I had the help great lab technicians and researchers who had already been in the trenches and could walk me through the important research procedures.

My project studies the symbiosis between soil bacteria and plants - specifically rhizobia and legumes (Fabaceae family). Rhizobia enter the roots of legumes and grow inside plant tissue that forms what are referred to as "nodules". Plants provide food (sugar) to the rhizobia while the rhizobia provide nutrition (nitrogen) to the plants. Most of the time rhizobia are already present in the soil, but sometimes the soil is inoculated with rhizobia to improve the chances of nodule formation.

It seems simple at first, but as I read more about nodulation, I learned that it is anything but that. I used to read about nodulation in my undergraduate studies and think about it at a macrobiology scale. My current research, however, is focused on nodulation from a microbiology scale. It is an interesting switch in perspective that has made me gain more of an interest in microbiology. When I really think about it, people don't truly understand things until they are able to break them down into their simplest components, and my current focus on microbiology has certainly been enlightening.

On one hand I am reading things about applications of nodulation as it applies to agriculture and on the other hand I am reading about microbial metabolism and genetics. Over the past 50 years agriculture has gained more of a focus on genetics and microbiology and I feel that current rhizobia research is going in that direction. Just as some researchers were able to apply microbiology to make breakthroughs in plant resistance and growth, I think a breakthrough in rhizobia research could help improve soil fertility - at least in a way that is more natural than dumping chemicals all over it.

This is generally the point where people get distracted by other things so before you go you should know that I am done with the first stage of my research. I am specifically looking at competition between individual rhizobia strains for nodulation of Hairy Vetch. That is, if such competition exists. For all I know the nodulation could be a first-come-first-served occurrence. I won't know much until I actually begin the analysis. Now I see first-hand why news stories about scientific research can say one thing one month and something different the next month. Research results can be fickle even if you are doing things properly.

2013/11/04 - Entering the growth chamber

One week in the growth chamber
Thanks to Mary I was able to use these adorable mini-trellises to support the plants.

A few weeks in the chamber. Thankfully all the units contained a growing plant

Last day in the growth chamber was 2013/12/18. Some visible variation, but not enough to make reliable predictions.

Non-inoculated control - Inoculated treatment - Nitrogen enhanced

Some plants have 50 nodules. Some have Over 150. It depends on what kind of mood they were in.

That's it for now. The next step is heavily focused on molecular biology. I will likely be bothering the other lab researchers as much as possible to make sure I get things right.

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