Faculty, students research trees on campus

Secluded in the confines of White Hall is a species of aspen tree foreign to the United States. That’s because Mark Bolyard, chairman of the biology department, has been granted renewal on a United States Department of Agriculture permit to study European aspen trees.

Right now, the trees are small and are being held in a biosafety cabinet that encases them.

The European aspens are not very different than American aspens, said Bolyard, who added that the main difference is the unusual bacteria emitted from the European trees.

The department is conducting studies on the trees because of that bacteria.

The project began three years ago when a Lithuanian friend with a doctorate in plant pathology, Jonas Ziauka, showed Bolyard a curious occurrence in aspen trees he was monitoring.

Ziauka noticed that when a particular type of hormone was exposed to the trees, bacteria were emitted. Bolyard compared it to bacteria that live in the human body.

“Some of the bacteria help fight off bad bacteria,” Bolyard said. “Some of them do biochemical processes for us. Plants have similar relationships with bacteria.”

“There is no visible damage to the trees,” Bolyard said. “It’s not necessarily disease, just bacteria.”

The project is primarily oriented toward student engagement. Instead of a professor solely taking on the task of studying the aspens, students also are encouraged to use the trees for the research they do as part of various biology majors.

“My objective is not primarily to publish or use it for my own professional advancement,” Bolyard said. “My objective is to give students a chance to do primary research and, from there, have it published.”

The opportunity helps students produce viable work, even while in college. Bolyard said very little has been published on the topic, so there is much to learn about what is causing the trees to emit the bacteria.

Any biology student can make the aspen tree study into an independent or group collaborative project, Bolyard said.

All biology majors are required to conduct this kind of research before they graduate.

The aspen tree project provides a great deal of material with which to work, should students choose to study it. Microbiology covers a vast range of interests, and any biology major could benefit from the aspen tree study, Bolyard said.

Union alumnus Carrie Moore took advantage of the opportunity when the project first began three years ago.

Teala Terrell, senior biology major, is now studying the aspen trees for her independent project. She is working on identifying several different microbes in the aspen trees.

The immature aspen trees arrived at Union from Lithuania during spring break and are growing in a microbiological hood, a containment facility that prevents them from contaminating the environment.

While the trees will not be planted, Bolyard said they might be sectioned to observe them under a microscope. This will provide more insight into why the bacteria are being produced.

The study presents Union biology students with a connection to like-minded scientists across the world.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is connect students at every opportunity to things going on outside the university,” Bolyard said. “This is one more way to recognize that we’re connected globally.”

Bolyard is the coordinator of this second–round research project, and Cathy Huggins, biology laboratory specialist, assists Terrell as a mentor.


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