Bringing Holden Science to the Classroom

By Sarah Kyker, HF&G Research Associate

At Holden, my job focuses mostly on conducting plant science research. I really love conducting research! There is something thrilling about an unexpected result or a result that answers a long burning question. I even love the months (or years) of data collection that are necessary to answer a research question. But, this week I brought Holden’s research into the classroom and it was equally thrilling!

For the third year in a row, I was asked to be a guest lecturer in the Microbiology lab at Lake Erie College. Our colleague, Deborah Shulman, is a professor there. She likes to bring a microbial ecology lesson into a class that teaches mostly medical microbiology. This year, I shared research from Holden’s soil ecology lab that is exploring how soil microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi can aide forest restoration. Some of the forests at Holden have a history of agricultural land use. One consequence of this past agricultural land use is that the forests are missing the dense cover and high diversity of wildflowers that we find in old growth forests. A few years ago, we planted Jack in the Pulpit and False Solmon’s Seal into the forests in hopes that they would reestablish. But, we amended the soil when we made these plantings! We added either a commercial inoculum of mycorrhizal fungi or soil collected from old growth forests. In addition to this field study, we also planted Jack in the Pulpit and False Solomon’s Seal into pots in the greenhouse with the same soil amendments. Our hypothesis is that by adding either known plant mutualists from the commercial inoculum or microorganisms from an established forest found in the old growth soil, the plants will have a better chance of reestablishing. Since the plantings, we have been monitoring the growth of the plants and have found that the plants grow less when grown with the commercial inoculum. Now we want to know why that is. One possible reason is that the commercial inoculum could be altering the species of microorganisms that are associating with the plants.

This is where the Microbiology class at Lake Erie College comes in! I brought some soil samples from the greenhouse study to the class. The wonderful group of students used DNA-based techniques to isolate DNA from the microorganisms in the soil. The techniques they used were DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which amplifies a particular region of DNA. In our case, we amplified a gene from bacteria to study this group of organisms in the soil samples. The techniques that the students used can be used to study microorganisms from anywhere, not just from soil, and are also useful beyond microbiology. I was happy to teach them about these useful DNA methods, but I was mostly happy to see their interest in ecological research. While they were excellent at conducting the lab methods, what they seemed most interested in was contributing to the restoration research! I truly believe that talking with students empowers the next generation of scientists and it is something that I truly enjoy!