Summer Centered: Griffin Kaulbach ’21 Mixes Up Some Microbiomes
The environmental studies major is exploring how agricultural conditions come to impact plant health by investigating the biology of plant microbiomes in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley.
This summer, environmental studies major Griffin Kaulbach ’21 is rolling up her sleeves and sinking her hands into some nutrient-filled soil. As a KINSC-sponsored research assistant in Britt Koskella’s integrative biology research lab at the University of California, Berkeley, she’s studying how the nuances of a plant’s root environment impact its growth and health.
“The lab studies experimental evolution and microbial ecology,” said the health studies and biology minor. “We’re studying how nutrients and fungal-root interactions in the soil affect the microorganisms that colonize on tomato plants and how these plants react when challenged by a specific plant pathogen known as Pseudomonas syringa.”
This investigation is built on the simple premise that plant growth is a product of environmental factors. Naturally, plants grow in response to obvious environmental conditions like frequent access to sunlight and clean water, but this study explores the more microbial aspects of a plant’s environment—its microbiome.
“It has been shown previously that a plant’s microbiome promotes plant growth, metabolizes important nutrients that plants can’t on their own, exchanges nutrients, and protects against disease, drought, and other stresses,” said Kaulbach. By studying the microbiome, Koskella’s lab can potentially discover ways to increase how efficiently and effectively these operations are performed, as well as perhaps unveiling new impacts that a plant’s microbiome can have.
On a day-to-day basis, Kaulbach’s work can take any number of forms: she can be found planting and caring for tomato plants, separating microbiomes from plants for testing, reading papers for background material, or helping other lab members with the fieldwork for their studies. Amidst all of this, though, she still finds time to work with her collaborators on the experimental design of her lab’s project.
“I plan the experimental design of the project as we go with our collaborators, consulting them when there is a procedure that my lab doesn’t know about,” said Kaulbach. “For example, we didn’t know which soil would be best to use for this experiment, since the nutrients available in the soil factor into our query, so we had to figure out how to control the soil composition while making it ecologically realistic.”
These troubleshooting moments when Kaulbach is working with her other lab members to quickly solve a problem demonstrate the collaborative nature of her summer work. The team-like atmosphere isn’t new to Kaulbach, who competes during the academic year as a member of the Bees—Haverford’s women’s cross country and track and field teams—but it is inspiring.
“The collaborative environment is awesome,” she said. “Everyone shares their research with each other and asks for advice, which supports the collaborative and respectful values of the lab. It’s a cool experience to be in a lab with people from so many different backgrounds.”
Although the study itself is intensely biological in nature, its impact sits squarely in the realm of Kaulbach’s environmental studies major. By focusing on optimizing plant microbiomes, researchers can help reduce the environmental impact of dozens of industries in a sustainable way.
“The study has possible implications for sustainable agriculture,” she said. “Manipulation of the plant microbiome has the potential to reduce plant disease, increase agricultural production, reduce the use of chemical inputs, and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.