Talent Vharachumu

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.” 

Anirban Guha

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.