Getting Started: Labels, germination and literature

As we head into our third full week of our REU internship our projects are finally beginning to take shape. For my project with Alicia Foxx, we're looking at the impacts of plastic responses on plant interactions such as competition and coexistence. For my part, I'm looking at how competition affects soil parameters including soil organic matter, soil moisture content, root exudates, and fungal diversity.

So far, we've been working to set up the experiment. This has included germinating seeds and preparing more than 1,000 pots in the greenhouse. For seed germination, cleaned seeds are sterilized, plated onto agar, and incubated with day/night cycles that the specific seed requires. It's tedious work, plating seeds, but it was exciting to learn. I've learned that a lot of patience goes into germinating seeds like this and that a number of things could go wrong. We found this out when the freezing temperature of the incubator turned our solid agar to liquid, which forced us to plate more seeds. This was an unwelcome surprise, however, there is something oddly relaxing in the monotonous and somewhat rhymic task of plating seeds that I find enjoyable.

Pascopyrum smithii (western wheatgrass) seeds plated for germination.

 As for the work in the greenhouse, so far we've labeled every pot with a number and made sure that no pots are leaking sand from the bottom. There are over 1,000 pots in our experiment, and labeling them all took around 6 hours over the course of a week. To keep sand from spilling out of the holes in the bottoms of the pots, fine mesh was layered at the bottom before they were filled with sand. In some cases, the mesh had moved out of place, so those pots had to be emptied and re-meshed. I really enjoy time spent in the greenhouse. It's hot, dirty, and hands-on and it feels rewarding to see physical proof of your hard work. I love hands-on work, and because my project doesn't have a field component I value the greenhouse work even more.

Half of our greenhouse pots. These have yellow conetainers to reserve space for a plant to be inserted later.

In the meantime, while I wasn't labeling or plating seeds, I was reading the literature to get a better idea of the science behind the experiment. Some things I've been reading about include competition, plasticity, roots, and culturing fungus. I've already learned a lot in these two short weeks and I look forward to what the remainder of the summer as a CBG REU intern has in store for me.