Share Scientific Breakthroughs, New Technologies
Scientific breakthroughs come about in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are the result of a focused research effort on a specific issue. Other times an observation made in the course of research on a different question proves to be pivotal. Applying established technology in a new context sometimes results in a surprising discovery. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership all involving scientific breakthroughs that contribute to the health and sustainability of the Nation’s natural resources.
See how students integrate technology into citizen science projects in the latest edition of the Natural Inquirer.
A native of Ohio, Jennifer Koch grew up camping and fishing and hiking with her family. She carried her interest in nature indoors, too; as a grade-schooler she learned to take cuttings and propagate houseplants. It would be several years before Koch knew that studying plants could be a career. “Nearly 30 years ago, the only science career that I heard about in school was medicine,” Koch said. “I was not aware that there were career options in natural resources.”
After a few years of researching human genetics, Koch’s interest in plants was renewed when she completed a doctoral dissertation that explored similarities in how defense responses are triggered in trees and people. Now a research biologist with the Northern Research Station’s Genetics, Biological Control, and Management of Invasive Species research work unit in Delaware, Ohio, Koch studies tree genetics and breeds trees for resistance to nonnative insects and diseases.
Koch and her collaborators identify ash and beech trees that have survived and remained healthy despite long term exposure to emerald ash borer (EAB) and beech bark disease, respectively, suggesting that these trees may have increased defenses against these damaging pests. Dormant branches, or scion, are collected and used to make copies, or clones, of these survivor trees through a process called grafting. The survivor trees are then tested to confirm that they have some degree of resistance. Some of the seedlings that are produced through cross pollination between two survivor trees will be even more resistant than either parent. Koch’s work developing breeding programs for ash and beech will ultimately lead to the production of genetically diverse and regionally adapted sources of beech seedlings enriched for resistance to beech bark disease and ash seedlings with increased defenses against EAB.
In October 2017, Koch’s work with the USDA Forest Service’s National Forest System, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University and the Holden Arboretum culminated in the planting of disease resistant beech seedlings at Ludington State Park, where beech bark disease was first identified in Michigan. The project underscores the importance of partnership in tree breeding programs, which is one of the aspects of her work that Koch appreciates the most. “Our beech program is not something that we could have done by ourselves,” Koch said. “It is very fulfilling to work with a team to breed a more resilient tree, and then to see the excitement and enthusiasm people have about using that tree in forest restoration.”
New tools to detect oak wilt
Oak wilt, caused by the fungus Bretziella fagacearum (Ceratocystis fagacearum), is one of the most serious threats to the health of oak trees in the eastern United States. Red oak trees can die from oak wilt in as little as 6 weeks, although it more commonly takes multiple years for white oak species. A Northern Research Station scientist and her collaborator have recently developed two new molecular-based diagnostic tools that greatly reduce the time it takes to confirm the presence of the fungus, which helps resource managers act faster to prevent disease spread.
Oak wilt has been found in 24 states in the U.S. and has been particularly destructive to oaks in the Upper Midwest and Texas. The fungus kills oaks by blocking the flow of nutrients and water from the roots of the tree to the leaves, causing the leaves to wilt and fall off. Accurate and timely diagnosis is critical to controlling the disease. Without early detection and management, oak wilt can greatly impact urban and rural ecosystems.
Standard laboratory methods of detection of the oak wilt fungus require 10-14 days for the fungus to be isolated. Research Plant Pathologist Jenny Juzwik and her collaborator developed detection tools that can identify the fungus in as little as 2 days to confirm the presence of the pathogen. “The new tools, both molecular protocols, use a standard sample collection from the tree and a commercially available kit for DNA extraction,” said Juzwik.
Special funding from the USDA Forest Service Special Technology Development Program helped to move this new research technology into the hands of users. “We worked side-by-side with two plant disease diagnostic labs to beta test the two methods,” said Juzwik. “These state university labs are part of the national plant diagnostic network.” Juzwik’s research resulted in clear protocols that are now being used for oak wilt detection, and her results were also shared in a peer-reviewed journal publication, a recognized standard by the scientific community for presentation of new protocols or methods.
Bat Wing Prints
Being able to identify and track individual animals is important in wildlife research, but for decades bats have been defying scientists’ efforts to find (or create) distinguishing characteristics. Recently, Sybill Amelon, research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station and her collaborators studying white-nose syndrome in bats discovered that each bat has its own unique bat wing print, like a fingerprint, that can be used for identification. This discovery has significant implications for better understanding bat behavior in general and in particular understanding white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats over the past decade.
Common methods used in the past for bat identification – banding, tattoos, holes punched in wings, electronic tags—have all proven unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons (tagged bats are hard to relocate, holes close up, tattoos are too labor intensive). Discovery of a pattern of crisscrossed lines called collagen-elastin bundles that are unique to each bat wing is a true breakthrough. These bundles serve the function of making the wing tissue strong but at the same time flexible enough for flight. Although white-nose syndrome affects bat wings, the collagen-elastin bundle network maintains its original wing print.
“Biometrics” is the term used for identifying individuals based on their physical characteristics. The usefulness of a characteristic in distinguishing individuals is based on four criteria: universality, distinctiveness, permanence and collectability. To determine if the bat wing prints would meet the biological criteria, scientists photographed bat wings over time. Then they asked reviewers not involved in taking the wing photos to match individual bats to their wing photos. With basic training the reviewers were able to successfully match bats to their wing photos 96 percent of the time.
“While further evaluation of the technique of using bat wing prints for individual identification is needed, this methodology has great potential as a standardized system that can be shared among bat conservationists worldwide,” said Amelon.
Everything that is living or was once living contains carbon, and that elemental detail has profound implications for science. Radiocarbon dating involves comparing carbon isotopes to determine how much radioactive carbon is in a particular object, which allows scientists to calculate how long ago it was living. Radiocarbon dating is commonly associated with archeological research (think Egyptian mummies), but scientists at the Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science (NIACS), a USDA Forest Service collaboration with academia, industry and non-government organizations, created the Radiocarbon Collaborative in an effort to enable scientists to apply the technique to ecological science.
“The creation of the Radiocarbon Collaborative made a very sophisticated and expensive scientific tool available to Forest Service researchers,” said Kate Heckman, a research biological scientist with NIACS who leads the Collaborative. “We offer mentors who can help guide the application of radiocarbon dating and interpret the results, which makes radiocarbon more affordable and practical for Forest Service scientists and other carbon cycle researchers.” A collaboration of the USDA Forest Service, the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility at the University of California, Irvine, and Michigan Technological University, for the past 7 years the Radiocarbon Collaborative has supported more than 60 different research projects from more than 40 collaborating institutions in the United States and abroad in landscapes ranging from tropical to arctic. Heckman has been involved in research spanning 22 unique ecological domains focused on scientific disciplines including climate change and the carbon cycle, land management, and wildlife conservation.
What kind of questions can radiocarbon help answer?
- Across the Chippewa and Hiawatha National Forests, as well as Isle Royal National Park, radiocarbon dating of archaeological artifacts (bone, pottery sherds, and copper tools) is helping us understand the history of human occupancy across these lands and the evolution of tool making.
- Radiocarbon Collaborative partners from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Pacific Southwest Research Station, and California Fish and Wildlife are applying radiocarbon to reveal patterns in habitat abandonment by the American pika. Results are being used to assess the vulnerability of the American pika to increases in temperature.
- The Radiocarbon Collaborative also partners with Northern Research Station scientist Erik Lilleskov to support the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP), in which radiocarbon is used to map carbon stocks and accumulation rates of montane peatlands in previously unexamined areas.
“It’s still ramping up,” Heckman said. “We’re hopeful it will continue to grow.”