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Underground photography of root growth

Wednesday, June 13, 2012, by Samuel Knapp
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I’m still shocked by the opportunity I have been given this summer. Being from the upper-Midwest, I was unsure what I would find when I arrived at the Harvard Forest. Much to my delight, the people of Massachusetts and Harvard Forest have been friendly and welcoming. The region is beautifully forested, and the surrounding communities live up to all the great things I’ve heard about New England culture (accents included). 

My research this summer at the Harvard Forest looks into the unseen world of roots, specifically the timing of their growth and decay. Trees allocate carbon to roots in the forms of cellular growth and carbohydrate storage, but the timings of these events are relatively unknown unlike above-ground processes of shoot and leaf development. Rates of respiration along with the chemistry of the roots and surrounding soil also fluctuate during these processes. The data we collect tracking root growth is fundamental to understanding tree systems, and therefore forest systems, as a whole. As an undergraduate research intern, I have been trusted with a frighteningly expensive piece of equipment to conduct my measurements. What looks like a mortar shell on a long aluminum pole, the Minirhizotron camera is inserted into clear plastic tubes in the ground to take photographs of fine root systems as they grow, die, and decay. 

I am still amazed by this $30,000 piece of equipment that can capture high resolution images of roots as small as the width of a hair. With the many, many photographs I will take this summer, my mentor, Rose Abramoff of Adrien Finzi's lab at Boston University, and I will create quantitative measurements of when and in what amounts roots grow and die. 

My experiences this summer, in addition to exposing me to the scientific process, have already shown me that I have a particular interest in design and construction of research equipment. I look forward with anticipation to what the rest of the summer holds: great friends, new places, interesting findings, and definitely more of our chef Tim’s uncannily delicious food!

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