by Dorothee Kellinghusen, staff writer
How do scientists study the migration patterns of a population of green salamanders without catching large amounts of them and counting them? Salamanders are secretive, small, rare and, even when found, they can be difficult to collect. Nevertheless, this is what JJ Apodaca is studying as a professor of conservation biology at Warren Wilson.
Another professor working on a research project is Alisa Hove, who teaches biology at Warren Wilson. She focuses on plant genetics and eco-physiology, which is the study of how plants respond to living and nonliving aspects of the environment. Basically, for non-scientists, she is observing how plants breathe. More specifically, Hove addresses the effect of drought on photosynthesis.
Apodaca does not use invasive methods when searching for and collecting data from salamanders and likewise, Hove does not spend her life in a greenhouse to watch the plants breathe. They both use state of the art scientific equipment to collect and analyze data which is done in the new genetics lab.
“We are very pleased to be able to work with world class laboratory research equipment,” Hove said.
Both professors arrived at the college last year. According to Apodaca, this region of the Appalachian Mountains is “the world center of salamander diversity.” It is the habitat for 20 percent of all salamander species which makes it the best place to study them. Now that the Apodaca and Hove have the lab equipment and resources, they are able to do more extensive research than before.
Apodaca wrote applications for grants, and had the support of other faculty members, students and staff members. His determination paid off, and the department received grants allowing the college to furnish a genetics lab. The “shared student and faculty genetics and plant physiology research lab” was finished in time for this semester.
Apodaca and Hove are not the only ones happy to have the genetics lab. Senior biology and conservation biology major Austin Patton is the first lab technician in the new facility. In the lab, he uses a pipette to take a tiny drop of a specific DNA sequence and places it on the plate of the PCR Thermocycler. This thermocycler allows researchers to make millions of copies of targeted gene sequences. Apodaca and his team know how to analyze them to then can make inferences about salamander populations.
Patton explains his work only in between making copies of DNA sequences. The work requires his full attention so that he may get precise results. The lab rules are strict, especially in regards to cleanliness. He explains this is to avoid contamination of the samples. Patton sees it as a privilege to be part of the research team, but it also comes with great responsibility.
“This genetics lab provides an awesome opportunity for students to be integrated in modern research of plants and animals,” Patton said.
Hove points out that at many colleges it can be very challenging for undergraduate students to join an ongoing research project. But having the opportunity to include students in these research projects is one reason why she took this position at the college.
The genetic laboratory is not a crowded room full of huge machinery. The PCR Thermocycler is a fairly small computerized instrument located on the countertop of the lab room. Other scientific apparatuses are placed throughout, but do not seem to be quite as spectacular to a non-scientist. Austin explains some of their functions. Especially interesting is the infra-red gas-exchange analyzer chamber which basically measures the breathing of living things. Scientists say that the chamber returns data about rates of soil respiration and the gas exchange of plants. According to Hove, this equipment is capable of measuring the respiration of a tiny fruit fly.