My name is Maddie Berkvam and I am a senior at UW-Madison studying Zoology and Environmental Studies. I have been working in the Lindroth Lab with Hilary Bultman since the summer of 2014, but began working on a research proposal in January 2014. Since my involvement in the Lung Cancer Research Group of the Carbone Cancer Center and my assistance on a project in Dr. Karasov’s zoology lab, I had been seeking a way to become more involved in a research project that similarly excited my curiosity. Through my ongoing research project in collaboration with Hilary, I was awarded the Hilldale Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research Fellowship, which included funding for our study. My project aimed to identify the genetic bases and mechanisms of foliar damage in aspen.
Identifying the genes responsible for ecologically important traits is a central challenge of 21st century biology. For this project, we are identifying the aspen genes involved in leaf damage (via pathogens, insects, wind, UV, etc). In the first part of our study, we surveyed a large number of aspen clones to gather data on leaf traits (e.g., area, perimeter, length, width) and the percent damage present on each tree. To do this, we collected 12 leaves from each tree and digitally scanned them. We then used leaf-imaging software to calculate values for leaf traits and damage. The results of this phase revealed high heritability of leaf damage, which means that the genetics of the trees determines a large fraction of variation in leaf damage (rather than environmental influences, for instance). This is a good sign for the next steps of our study: a Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS). At this stage, we will hopefully be able to use our previously analyzed data in addition to a fully sequenced and genetically “marked” aspen tree genome (for the first time!) to identify the aspen genes that influence leaf damage.
The results of this study have both economic and ecological significance, which we hope will provide the foundation for future research and conservation initiatives. Economically speaking, aspen is an important biofuel and by definition, an important source of clean energy. In terms of ecology, aspen serves as a foundation species, which plays a vital role in ecosystem resilience and stability, particularly in regions of the U.S. where aspen is highly populated. The identification of genes responsible for damage (such as pathogen damage) in aspen is an essential step in being able to genetically modify or select an aspen cultivar that may be less likely to be damaged and consequently, survive to propagate in the environment or be used as a biofuel crop.
With graduation quickly approaching, I hope to build upon the wonderful experience and knowledge I have gained from this research project in the future. As a long-term goal, I would like to go on to attend medical school and capitalize upon opportunities to further explore the scientific process, contribute to the increasingly innovative field of medical research, and eventually, become a practicing physician/clinician. The chance to work in such a stimulating research environment has given me ample opportunities to enhance my academic experience in ways I previously had not foreseen. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be involved in one of the many groundbreaking research labs here and I hope future students are afforded this same opportunity.