Summer’s End and the Way Forward

I’m back on campus now, and it feels like a whole new world since I left at the end of summer research just a few weeks ago. The terrace is bustling, neon-shirted OAs are leading parades of new students around, and I don’t have nearly unlimited time to work on my research any more. And how much more there is to do! Although I was able to collect all my leaf samples for the herbivory project this summer, I now have to extract and analyze all the cardenolides in them so I can begin to draw conclusions about herbivory impact on clonal systems of common milkweed. I’m so excited to have concrete data to work with, but it’s definitely going to be a lot tougher to get the work done during the school year when I have so many time commitments! In addition to the herbivory project, we finally have all of our data for the microsatellite project. We are now working on statistical analyses for these data, and preparing the manuscript that they will be presented in! This summer was an incredible experience and look into what life beyond college can be like. I have loved devoting myself to my research and collaborating with my labmates.

The Munching: Experimental procedures and data analysis

smiley punches

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Losing the Battle to Win the War: Plant massacres and program fails

I’ve taken a fair few Ls in the past few weeks here in Puzey lab, but I know they’ve all been for the best. In my last post, I wrote about the measures we were taking to beat back thrips and spider mites; in this post, I must write that I was unable to control the insects on my plants, and had to make the decision to cut them all back. The spider mite populations were huge, and I was having to wipe down the leaves and stems of my plants every day to kill them. Misting with water and even bleach didn’t help, and on top of that, thrips were still present. I couldn’t use insecticidal soaps on the plants, because we had released so many predatory insects to help. So, I cut every single plant back to its roots. This sounds traumatic for the plants, but milkweed has such extensive root systems that they regrow quickly and healthily. Now I just have to wait for everything to grow—and then I can start executing my experiment!

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Repotting, Re-PCRing, and the War for the Greenhouse

Life has been hectic since returning to campus for summer research. I dove back into work with a massive repotting of my milkweed. My project requires two stems of milkweed in every pot—on one stem I will simulate insect herbivory, and I will measure cardenolide levels in both to determine whether chemical defense signals are shared through root systems. Splitting and repotting milkweed is an all-day event, mostly because by the end of it you’ll be too dirty and exhausted to want to do anything else. Milkweed naturally occurs in fields and prairies, where plants send out sprawling root networks that take up water and nutrients and anchor the plants so they can grow as tall as over two meters. Though our plants in the greenhouse never grow that tall, their roots still try, and milkweed pots are crammed with tangled and gnarled knots of them. My labmates pitched in to help me out on repotting day, which I will always be thankful for, considering what a huge and messy task it was! We shook out gallons of loose dirt and chisel away more from the roots, so we could trace roots to see which stems are closely collected and can become a pair in its own pot. We do all this while trying not to snap the delicate stems, which grow to about two to three feet in the ISC. By the end of the day, we were all covered head to toe in potting soil, as were the floors of the greenhouse, which we bleached and scrubbed.

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They Heard It Through the Grapevine: How Asclepias syriaca Communicates

Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is a tall, herbaceous plant that reproduces both sexually, through pollination, and asexually, through producing multiple shoots from a single root system. It has strong chemical and physical defenses against herbivory, and when the plant senses that tissue is being disrupted by insects, it accordingly increases its production of latex (a gummy liquid) and cardenolides (toxic compounds). Previous studies have shown that other clonal plants with shoot or root connections are able to share resources such as water and nutrients between stalks. My research will investigate whether stalks of A. syriaca experiencing herbivory can share the signals that induce increased defenses with their clonal relatives; in effect, can milkweed stems “talk” to their fellow clones to warn them about present dangers?

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