Talent Vharachumu was an undergraduate intern who is originally from Zimbabwe and attends university in Costa Rica. She is studying agricultural sciences and has become particularly interested in plant physiology, especially due to her time at the lab. Along with the work Talent did for the physiology lab, as is typical for an intern, she sometimes participated in work with other labs as well. She enjoyed this because it allowed her to learn many different things and meet more people. She hopes to be able to return to the lab to complete her masters.
She enjoyed her work at the lab because she learned more about plant physiology. Our goal at the tree physiology lab is to improve general tree health and make strides in understanding tree physiology better and more completely. To accomplish this goal, we do research with a whole plant approach. One such experiment is on how different plants respond to and are affected by heat.
Talent primarily worked on that experiment. She would collect leaves from a variety of trees in a variety of genotypes and perform a procedure on them to test how they tolerate the different temperatures. To do the experiment she used a machine that punches a piece of the leaf out, then placed the piece on a black disk that went inside a Ziplock bag, which was then placed in a container of water for 30 minutes. Then she’d record the chlorophyll fluorescence (photosynthetic energy conversion) of the leaves, given from a machine called the Fluoremeter. She also worked on another project with an infrared gas analyzer (Li-6800) machine to measure photosynthesis, gas exchange, and chlorophyll fluorescence.
When I asked Talent why she believes this work is important and why she thinks people should care about it she explained that the data she’s gathering helps us better understand the way climate change is affecting the planet, different environments, and plants in general. People who work in agriculture can use the data about which plants tolerate heat better to determine which genotypes to grow, which hopefully will increase plant yield and agricultural efficiency as temperatures warm. Talent also said it “…can help them reduce losses from low production due to high temperatures that are being caused by global warming.” This is useful because it allows growers to make informed decisions about what kinds of crops to plant as the climate and planet continue to change. I asked specifically what she would say to people who think they don’t have a reason to care about plants and she said, “They don’t care about plants, but they care about eating.”
One important question that growers have been asking is how much kaolin can be on a leaf before having negative consequences from too much shading. If you are considering applying another layer, and the original layer hasn’t been washed off, it is important to know how much kaolin can be on a leaf before it begins to have a negative effect. Because we have some idea of how individual leaves respond to different light levels.
To answer this question we measured transmittance with the equivalent of different rates of kaolin. You can see the response plot below. One important feature of the response is that increasing rates of kaolin beyond 50 lbs/acre doesn’t increase the degree of shade to the same extent that rate increases below that level do.
So how much shade is beneficial for citrus plants? We can start by looking at the the maximum amount of light that these rates allow to reach the leaf.
Citrus leaves saturate at approximately 700 umols/m2 s, which means that additional light does not increase photosynthesis. With red kaolin, at the highest expected sunlight intensity (about 2200 umols), 25 lbs/acre reaches the level of shading reduces the light intensity of the exterior leaves to the saturation level, but the white kaolin doesn’t reach the level of 25 lbs/acre of red until 100 lbs/acre of white, though 50 lbs per acre reaches close to saturation.
Given these differences in intensity, we still don’t know why plants covered with the red seems to grow slightly more than those treated with the white. However, levels of red greater than 25-30 lbs/acre risk excessive diminishing light levels to exterior leaves, which means that they may not be able to maximize photosynthesis.
There can be a lot of complexity in terms of how much light reaches further into the canopy, which is part of how kaolin increases whole plant photosynthesis. However, it would seem that the risk of overapplicaton of white kaolin is low. You should be careful, though with repeated applications of red kaolin, unless previous applications have been mostly washed off.
Trees provide shade, but have you ever considered trees themselves needing shade? Our lab is seeking to answer this question. Anirban Guha, who is leading this effort in our lab, was able to sit down with me and answer some questions about the experiment. He joined the lab in April 2019 as a post-doctoral scholar. The experiment is attempting to determine how the trees respond to different light conditions over a period of two to three years with the use of shade nets to manipulate the environmental conditions. The lab records daily, weekly, and monthly results, and will record the yearly results when the time comes. We already know that citrus responds better in partial shade conditions, which improve yield and yield quality and photosynthesis and water status. We think that full sun has an especially bad effect on HLB trees. Anirban explained that the infected plants often cannot take in the full force of Florida sunlight; it provides them with more energy than they have the capacity to process. HLB also stunts root growth, which becomes even more of a problem when high light conditions demand more water and nitrogen than can be taken up by the roots.
The lab is testing whether shading the trees allows them to conserve more energy and require less water and nitrogen, which would help balance their functioning with the disease. Ultimately, the goal is to “[develop an] agricultural system in a way that could modify the environmental cues, and that can lead to better fitness of the plant to help sustain yield and maintain better physical performance.”
The main recipients of this experiment are scientists and citrus growers; Anirban thinks these two groups believe they have different reasons for caring about the results, but he believes their goals are actually similar and the knowledge they seek is complementary. Whether results are sought for economic reasons or a research quest, the ultimate goal is to see the trees become healthier and create more fruit yield—something both the scientific and agricultural communities can agree upon.
Anirban takes this collaborative approach in his work life as well. The physiology lab collaborates with other CREC labs to study and test infected trees. Their results often work together to create healthier trees. For example, the entomology lab provides information on how insects spread HLB. He desires for more scientists of different disciplines to work together to achieve “functional collaborative research,” which can help the scientific community locally and worldwide. Along with scientists working together to achieve more, he also wants his research to be holistic. He wanted to study trees not just at a cellular level, but “from leaf to whole plant.” After completing his PhD in India, he found the majority of opportunities available there were for study at the cellular level. Anirban was interested in more variety and didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. He also saw this gap in research as something he could potentially fill back home one day. He believes the study of the whole tree is important because problems tend to be linked to one another and can be better understood when a whole plant approach is taken. He enjoys his work but told me with a good-natured smile that he is not at all attached to the state of Florida and would like to return to India one day.
When I first spoke with Orlando Li he told me he wanted to work in the field with farmers; I knew I had the right candidate for my lab. Many students who contact me have an interest in biology that takes them to what we refer to as “lab work.” But I sometimes tell folks that the word “lab” for our group is a bit of a euphemism. What we have is more of a scientific field crew than a lab. Orlando’s interests fit perfectly with our group and our research aims.
Orlando is just finishing his proposal and preparing preliminary experiments to address how citrus plants regulate flushing on a whole plant basis. He’s looking into the environmental cues of flushing, relative timing of citrus root and shoot growth and of changes in carbohydrate movement, as well as what signals plants to make these changes happen.
“What does this have to do with field and farmers?” you ask.
Flushing patterns determine when the two major citrus pests in Florida can reproduce. Both Asian citrus psyllids and citrus leafminer lay their eggs on new flush, so if growers understood these cues they could use them to both manipulate them and to time other management decisions. If a grower knew a major flush was coming insecticides could reduce adult insect populations before they could lay eggs- even better if the grower could force the flush to be concentrated and keep it from spreading out over time. The answers to Orlando’s questions will help us design grower practices that will contribute to managing the two major disease challenges Florida citrus growers face. Orlando, whose given name is Sheng-yang, earned his Master’s degree in horticultural sciences at the National Taiwan University working on pear fruit thinning. He subsequently worked in Belize helping develop a certified budwood source for citrus growers there. I expect his contribution to Florida citriculture to be even more impactful.