Friday, February 23, 2018

Science Magazine article on the impact of Bioenergy Plantations

Earlier this month, Science Magazine published an article covering the development of a EPSCoR Track 2 grant project that the University of Wyoming is working on. UW researchers are collaborating with researchers from the University of Montana and the University of South Dakota to explore the impact of BECCS, (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) on the upper Missouri River Basin. This region includes Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.

Bioenergy is classified as crops that are grown for fuel purposes, such as corn used in ethanol.
Carbon capture and storage is a technology that takes carbon that is released into the atmosphere by power plants and compresses it into a liquid form. Once in this form it can be stored underground miles below the surface.

Bioenergy plantations and carbon capture may be a viable solution to removing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, but implementing the system would require a large amount of land. The practice has not been studied on a large scale, and this study hopes to look at how BECCS may effect food production, water use, and biodiversity in the region.

To learn more, the article can be found here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Newest Dirt on Microbial Communities

Have you ever struggled to keep a house plant alive? Or are the flowers in your garden wilting? New research in microbial communities that live just below the surface of these plants may give us the answer to growing bigger and better plants. 

In October of 2017 the ISME journal for microbial ecology published an article from University of Wyoming graduate student Charley Hubbard. His research was focused on how a plants circadian clock influences microbial community structure and function. After joining Cynthia Weinig's lab at UW Hubbard was able to combine his experience with bacteria with his interest in plants. Studies across disciplines have shown that microbes are extremely beneficial for their hosts.

"In plants, microbes can affect plant nutrient access, response to stress, the timing of important life history events, gene expression, growth and so much more," Hubbard explains.

Figure 1: Changes within the human circadian rhythm
In addition to microbes, the circadian rhythm is another important component of Hubbard's research. Also known as the inner biological clock, the circadian rhythm is found in a variety of organisms, including humans. This rhythm operates within the 24 hour period, and helps to regulate our sleep patterns, feeding behavior, and other physiological changes.

Hubbard's findings suggested that there was a difference in microbial communities depending on the plants circadian clock. In turn, the different microbes living in the soil affected the growth of the plant.

Figure 2: The Rhizosphere is where microbial communities live
"I think it is a Goldilocks and the three bears kind of scenario, where the three bears (plants with a 20, 24, and 28 hour circadian period) have selected their beds (microbial communities) and Goldilocks (plant with a 24 hour circadian period) prefers (grows largest in) a certain bed," Hubbard explains.

Hubbard looked specifically at the rhizosphere, the area where the root meets the soil, and where many microorganisms live.

"Essentially, we pull plants out of their pots, shake the roots until only the soil closely adhering to the roots remains, use specialized kits to take the DNA for the closely adhering soil, and then send that DNA to a lab in Massachusetts," Hubbard explains.

When they receive results from the lab, they are given huge files of DNA sequencing. This sequencing information is run through a special software to determine what microbes are associated with the plant.

Hubbard's publication comes out at a time when many other researchers are exploring the circadian rhythm in organisms. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a group of scientists who studied the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. These findings, as well as other findings focused on plant's circadian clocks, helped to inform Hubbard's project.

Hubbard is running follow up projects on this paper's findings in the context of natural variation in the circadian clock. The circadian clock within a plant may change depending on it's elevation, which would also affect the microbial community it lives with.

"If differences in the circadian clock lead to differences in microbial communities, then it is possible that plants at differing elevations associate with different microbial communities," Hubbard adds.

Figures 1, 2

Monday, January 22, 2018

Beyond the Ice

Dark granite spires stand out against the white snow and blue skies found in the Dinwoody Cirque, located in the northern Wind River Range. In the past few decades this breathe taking landscape has slowly changed. The Dinwoody glacier is now filled with snake like channels of melting ice. A team of staff, faculty, and students from Central Wyoming College (CWC) took on the challenge of trekking the glacier in search of answers beyond the icy surface.

The Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition (ICCE) is a program that takes CWC community college students on a two week field expedition to collect data for original research. These undergraduates are majoring in a variety of fields, including outdoor education and leadership, archaeology, and anthropology. ICCE allows undergraduate research opportunities in hydrology, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), soil sampling, kite aerial photography, and high-alpine archaeology.

Jacki Klancher, associate professor of environmental health and CWC, has developed and led this expedition for the past five years. Fellow professors Darran Wells and Todd Guenther  have also helped prepare and guide students into the back country to collect data used to answer a variety of scientific questions.

This past summer students studied water flow and quality, black carbon, and geo-spatial mapping. With a research area located at 10,000 feet, the expedition is both mentally and physically challenging. Students and staff who participate come in with background experience in NOLS or other outdoor leadership courses. The research team of 19 required 9 horses, 600 lbs of scientific equipment, and 300 pounds of food.

Students trek up the Dinwoody Glacier. Photo by Christian Harder.
"We work with really bright and capable students. They love the outdoor experience, but it's very unlikely to get them into STEM fields through the lab. So ICCE brings more skills in the analysis realm after they've been in the outdoor environment," Klancher explains.

Klancher enjoys seeing her students take their next steps after the ICCE prgram. Many undergraduates go on to the University of Wyoming and continue their research. They also return to the following year to help train new students out in the field. 

The team prepares to use the ground penetrating radar. Photo by Christian Harder
Ariel photography of the glacier. Photo by Christian Harder.

This year, ICCE will begin to study the microbial communities in and around the Dinwoody Glacier. With changing snow fields, data collection of microbes may show how microbial communities are changing as the glacier recedes. 

Klancher looks forward to learning and teaching new microbiological data collection methods.

"Adding this microbiology component is letting us cover as many science fields as possible. So each student can really find what lights their fire," Klancher says.

Klancher works to find grants, support, and wishes to further expand the program by bringing in new instructors and mentors. With other great ideas on the radar, Klancher is looking forward to expanding ICCE to other parts of Wyoming.

"We are delighted to share what we've learned with other community colleges across the state," Klancher says.  

She is thankfully for the support the program has received from Wyoming EPSCOR, INBRE, and the Wyoming State Grant. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Registration Opens for SRAP, WY EPSCoR's High School Learning Experience. Join Us!

The dog days of summer bring a different energy to Wyoming EPSCoR, that of high school age youth. Those curious, perhaps unsure, eager, and wide-eyed individuals spend six-weeks of their summer at the University engaged in hands-on research through the Summer Research Apprentice Program, or SRAP. In addition to research in the lab, participants spend time with mentors and program staff discussing college preparation, trying out new activities in and around Laramie like rock climbing, and building a vision for themselves enrolled in college. The program is aimed at first generation college students who may be interested in going to a university. This experience offers an opportunity to try college life on, to cultivate comfort on a college campus, and think through their next steps in a safe space. SRAP participants live in the dorms and eat at the dining hall together, some rent bright yellow cruiser bikes to navigate campus and town. They often walk together in groups to their research labs, to the gym, or out to enjoy the sunshine. Individuals come from a variety of backgrounds and geographies but soon find a family among the diverse faces.

SRAP, Summer Research Apprentice Program from Wyoming EPSCoR on Vimeo.

This year SRAPpers will dig into research questions associated with the microbial ecology of the state, Wyoming’s new EPSCoR RII Track 1 Research Project. Check out a day in the life of SRAP in this film. Participants will engage in activities from data collection and analysis to modeling, depending on the associated lab. These practices will build on what students learn in high school and offer practical applications for that information in a lab setting. In addition, lab time adds a level of context to the science and mathematics content. Participants will have lab mentors available to guide their process, nurture their curiosity, and support them as they work to answer a research question over the programs duration. At the end of the program, SRAPpers present their findings to their lab groups, peers, and the community at large in a celebration of their effort and learning. In exchange for time in the lab, SRAPpers are paid a stipend of $1920 and receive room and board on campus.

Think SRAP might be right for you or someone you know? We are looking to bring a class of open minded young people to the University this summer. Successful SRAP participants will be willing to explore new fields of science as well as themselves. Whether it is through yoga or lab practices, we challenge participants to grow. In exchange, we will create an environment in which participants can develop new skills and confidence in navigating the world beyond high school through hands-on learning and living. 

Registration is NOW OPEN, an can be found on the SRAP website
Contact Lisa Abeyta: 307-766-6059

Friday, November 17, 2017

Discovering Wyoming's Microbiome Through Data

Wyoming researchers are diving deeper into data collection in order to better understand Wyoming’s microbiome. Yet one of the most challenging parts of collecting data is meaningfully sharing it with the public. Dr. Shannon Albeke, with the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center has developed a data discovery tool that aims to do just that.  

The data discovery tool is an interactive web-map containing the spatial locations of collected data. Users can search the data base with specific filters based on location or the type of data. All of the data is free and open to public access online. 

The map interface of the data discovery tool. The orange points indicate data sets collected in the Medicine Bow and Laramie area.

Development of the tool began a few years ago with the input of WyCEHG data. The hydrological and geophysical data collected during this time will also be useful information for researchers investigating the microbial communities in these areas. 

“Ideally, this would be a one stop shop for researchers and their data to interact across discipline boundaries,” Shannon explains. 

Traditionally, data collection programs like this one have static data sets, but the discovery tool will have live data sets that update every 15 minutes. This is one of the first tools of its kind to include this feature. 

The discovery tool is still in its initial testing phase and will undergo more development. While most of the programming aspects of the tool have been completed, the next focus will be on the interface. Making the data base user friendly and easy to access is an important component of the project.
While the data discovery tool is now home to diverse data sets from across Wyoming, Shannon was interested in the tools ability to aid outreach efforts across the state. Shannon has collaborated with Dr. Andrea Burrows on incorporating the Data Discovery Tool into K-12 curriculum across Wyoming. Through her Science Methods class, Dr. Burrows has recruited undergraduate and graduate students to develop lesson plans that relate to microbiology.

"This is a great way to support scientists and teachers, but it's also a learning opportunity for students, soon they will be in the classroom teaching," Andrea says.

Science Methods students display their depiction of cyanobacteria with their microbe art project.

The initial lesson plans include an art project undergraduate students completed in their science methods class. To better understand microbes, the students divide pictures of microbes into three separate sections. Then in groups of three, each student painted a silk screen of their section of the microbe photo. When all three paintings are brought together, they complete the whole picture. Students working on the lesson plan development also proposed including microbiology into topics that are traditional covered in K-12 curriculum by focusing on microbes that exist within the food chain or ecosystem.  

“This is a great experience for students because the lesson plans they create can be used for 4-5 years throughout the grant. Each year new students or teachers can alter and build upon these original lesson plans,” Andrea explains. 

Andrea looks forward to directly relating these lesson plans to the use of the data discovery tool.  Teachers can pick specific microbes to study based on what is in their surrounding locations.

Shannon also mentioned storing imagery of microbes for younger students to view would also be beneficial. Additional modules and functionalities such as this can be incorporated into the data discovery tool to better aid outreach efforts.

With the development of the data discovery tool used in conjunction with outreach efforts, open data available to the public will further encourage more scientific exploration throughout the state.