Hi, my name is Rachel Fletcher, I am a Junior Biology major and Philosophy minor at Xavier. I study plant ecology through the Xavier Biology Department and have spent the past two summers at Xavier working full time in that research. I have been working on two primary projects with my research advisor: Dr. Kathryn Morris. The first is a project we are focusing on is plant communication via fungal networks. Fungus help plants grow. They attach to the roots in the soil and increase the plant’s root surface area. This allows the plants to take up more water/nutrients. In return, the fungus takes energy from the plant. These fungal networks can grow to be very large—sometimes stretching miles wide and connecting hundreds of plants together. Interestingly, plants have adapted to these connections and use them to their advantage. If one plant is cut or attacked by a insect, it turns on its defenses. Through the fungal network, this signal is propagated through the soil so that other plants are able to turn on their defenses preemptively. Dr. Morris and I have been working to see if this phenomenon is species specific. Thus, do plants tend to talk to other plants of that same species or are they nondiscriminatory?
The other project that I am working on involves sustainable farming methods. With the move towards organic farming and the removal of popular fumigation methods from the market due to negative health effects, the search for a more sustainable pesticide is under way. Dr. Morris and I have been studying brassicas (a genus of plants) that are renown for their toxic properties. The genus brassica includes many vegetables that we eat daily: broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. These plants produce glucosinolates which kill pathogens in the soil. We are working to see if these plants work well in crop rotations and if they are a reliable fumigant for farmers. Also, as a part of my fellowship, I want to see if we can breed brassicas to have more glucosinolates in the roots, that way, a farmer could harvest the head of the brassica (ex. the broccoli flower) and then till the rest of the plant into the soil in order to sterilize the soil for the next crop.
I am looking at traveling to Australia (since it has such diverse farming biomes) and interviewing with famers to determine the main issues with modern sustainable farming and their current methods of fumigation. I have studied all the farmable biomes in the United States and wish to expand my knowledge in order to create a fumigation method that is applicable to all areas. Additionally, I want to meet up with a professor at the University of Western Australia to work in a plant ecology lab and work on my plant breeding technique.