Special Trials

It’s a time of rising stress levels here at FABI. Benedicta, a fellow PhD student in our research group, and I are running two big, important trials as part of our PhD’s and they need to be executed flawlessly. In the trenches – counting spores, cutting tips and inoculating trees with different strains of a plant pathogenic fungus – is where special bonds form.

Trials start off as ideas around a table with your advisors and as the months go by the trial begins to take shape, becoming something real. Scary, really! Looking back, when we spoke about inoculating 54 and 109 different strains, it seemed quite simple but the execution — as we found out yesterday and today — has been quite different.

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Benedicta, supervising

 

Benedicta, for her diligence and hard work, became the guinea pig.  She had gathered and prepared her isolates a full week before me and so we decided to move ahead with her trial. After a few sleepless nights and a bottle or two of Amarula (the small ones) she had a design and a plan in place. It was the day before the first batch of inoculations and everything was looking good… until it wasn’t.

 

In all the excitement, we didn’t realize that her design – a work of art and a statistical dream – just wasn’t practical for the limited help and time we had. After a couple of head-scratching moments and the advice of our wise advisors, we managed to come up with a new design to save the trial.

Today, we successfully inoculated the first part of Benedicta’s trial; approximately 2,500 trees with 109 different fungal strains. The replicate of this trial, which should go faster, will happen on Thursday, the 29th November. I then jump into the driver seat next week and we repeat it all again for my work.

I have learnt a lot over the past couple of weeks in preparation for these trials. 1) You might think you can do it on your own (and you probably can) but make your life easier by getting help. Fortunately for us, we have an incredible team of advisors, postdocs and students who are willing to help. 2) Science is messy. You can try control everything but there will always be things out of your control, just accept it. 3) If you see someone struggling, just take the time to help and comfort them; it means the world to them. Trust me, I know. 4) No task is too big when you have an excellent team supporting you. That goes for the PhD as well.

Our two trials will run till January, next year, and we hope that the results are promising so that we can welcome 2019 with success and another step towards the end of our PhD journeys.  I hope your 2019 will be successful too!

“Read this and call me in the morning”

-Darryl Herron, Tree Doctor

The forest floor may not always seem as impressive as the giant trees that congregate around it but it is probably one of the more interesting places you’re likely to come across. During certain times of the year, if you’re lucky, have patience, and timed your visit after some rain, you will see a once plain forest floor come to life with wonderful colours and weird shapes, like the glowing pale green cap of Mycena chlorophos; the bird’s nest fungus, Cyathus novaezelandiae (yes, resembles a bird’s nest with eggs); and the characteristic creamy star-shaped earthstar, Geastrum triplex. My friends call me a tree doctor, and that’s what I am, sort of…

 

Side note: Before mycology was a recognized field, fungi were thought of as plants and were even grouped with them. The first scientists studying fungi were really botanists; so if we were living in 17th century, my friends would have been right.

I’m actually many things. I am a microbiologist by training; that is my broad field of study. The core focus of my PhD is on a fungus, which also makes me a mycologist (I study fungi). The fungus I work on kills pine trees and is a huge problem for the forestry industry, globally. Because I study a tree disease and work, part-time, in a plant clinic which diagnoses tree health issues, it also makes me a forest pathologist. I could call myself any one of these (and more) but I have adopted the title tree doctor. Like human doctors need to know about human physiology, the diseases which affect them and the medicines to remedy them, I need to understand that about plants.

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A tree doctor in action

Tree doctors are as awesome as — no, wait — are more awesome than medical doctors because a tree doctor has (or will have, in my case) the title “Dr” without having to worry about medical malpractice. We face a tougher challenge, however: tree doctors, like veterinarians, work with “patients” that cannot tell you what is wrong and the medical research for plants is far behind anything we have for humans and other animals. I essentially treat plants in the medical Stone Age! Yes, there are high mortality rates.

The knowledge gap is wide and that makes my job both interesting and disappointing. A few weeks ago I was called out to give some advice on a beautiful 100-year oak tree that was dying. The owner— having grown up with this tree, like her father before her—was willing to do anything to save this tree. Unfortunately, this oak was suffering with a root rot that was quite advanced and would eventually kill it. Had I the chemotherapy equivalent, the technology to safely cut out the diseased tissue or the knowledge of synthetic root growth, we could have done something to save this tree. But yeah, we’ve focused on animal health for millennia, and we still almost nothing about green living things.

Some individual trees have great sentimental value to people, but generally we seem to take them for granted. We should not. Trees quite literally provide the air that we breathe, and many animals (birds, squirrels, various pollinators) rely on them for safe spaces or food. We need healthy trees. As a farmer or forester, you realize the value of plants because you sell the plant or its products for a living. While these commercially important species are well protected and somewhat studied by many plant doctors, there are far too many plant species that do not receive the same attention—unless there are small pockets of them left, like many of our cycads or the redwoods in the US. Because our knowledge and the technology for plant health is so far behind, should these precious plants ever become diseased, it’s going to take a miracle to save them.

When you walk out of your house tomorrow morning, take a moment to look at what’s around you. Look at the plants in your garden, the trees on the street and those lining the horizon. Now, imagine if the only plants you’d ever see were grown in commercial plantations or massive, monotonous farms.

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Research shows that green spaces in cities boost our own mental health, that getting out into nature (not just well-tended gardens or farms) restores balance in our own rushed lives. It’s not just the green spaces, but the pale green, bird-nest lookalike, star-shaped spaces too—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Plants may not always seem as impressive as the humans that congregate around them but they are the lungs of our planet, and keep us mentally rooted (pardon the pun). We need a few more tree doctors to make sure that they don’t simply disappear and turn to dust under our feet.