Surviving Drought by Working Together: AMF-induced Drought Tolerance in Canadian Horseweed.

Often times, people view research as clean and precise- a group of scientists standing around in lab coats peering through microscopes. However, I’ve found through the course of my research that science can be messy and unclear. It isn’t always about finding the answers, but instead, learning which questions to ask next.

Hi, my name is Kian Speck and I am a senior studying Ecosystem Science and Restoration at the University of Montana. My capstone experience was a research project in partnership with Ylva Lekberg at MPG Ranch and built upon work done in collaboration with Min Sheng at Northwest A&F University in China. The research involved an important organism in plant ecology called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, or AMF. AMF is a type of microscopic fungus that lives in soil and forms relationships with the roots of most land plants. Put simply, the plant provides AMF a food source (carbon) as well as a place to live and reproduce. In return, the AMF offers a plethora of services for the plant, such as increased nutrient uptake, herbivory defense, and possible increased drought tolerance.

The ASUM greenhouse where my research was conducted. This is prior to drought, and I’m checking for any differences in plant growth between the two treatments.

The goal of my research was to determine if, and how, AMF help plants mitigate drought stress. The plant I used was Canadian horseweed, due to its prevalence in drought prone areas and documented association with AMF. Furthermore, Canadian horseweed is invasive in much of China and the Middle East and having a better understanding of its ecology could help restoration efforts overseas. The results of my research won’t be available until later this year, but the lessons I learned while conducting this research are clear. 

Setting up the drought conditions using a wick system to manipulate soil moisture. This was arguably the hardest part of the experiment to get right.

A major takeaway from my capstone experience is understanding the importance of scientific integrity. Although I faced my fair share of challenges and setbacks, it was important to correct mistakes properly to ensure that the data we were gathering would be accurate and unbiased. At times, these setbacks may have taken a couple weeks to correctly fix. In the end, having integrity is better than having a “clean” or “perfect” study.

Overall, this capstone experience has been extremely eye-opening. It has shown me how difficult science can be, and how rare it is to get everything right. It has caused me to ask more questions than I originally had, and to reanalyze assumptions I had made. I look forward to taking a closer look at our data and writing up the manuscript for publication in the coming months.