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Crossing boundaries: Cornell’s thriving research ecosystem

This story originally appeared in the online-only spring 2020 issue of Ezra magazine.

spiral- shapped robotic moisture samplers in hands

Taryn Bauerle, associate professor of horticulture, holds three of the earthworm-shaped robots that she and a multidisciplinary team developed using a biomimicry approach. The robots, which will have attached water sensors to gather information from soil, can burrow into the ground, similar to earthworms, in a more natural manner and with less disruption than shoveling. (Photo: Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Taryn Bauerle had a problem.

Bauerle, associate professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), studies how root systems respond to thirst. It’s a critical area of research: Better understanding roots will help breed new drought-resistant crops, which are sorely needed to meet the global challenges of climate change, food shortages and population growth.

But digging into the ground to observe roots inevitably disrupts their environment, disturbing microorganisms and fungi, and even risks cutting into the roots themselves.

For years, Bauerle tried to work around the limitations of existing tools. Last year, while brainstorming with Johannes Lehmann, professor of soil sciences in SIPS, she had a different idea. “We quickly realized we needed a new approach,” she says, “and then we thought: Why not use biomimicry to develop some new tools?”

Bauerle and Shepherd

Bauerle, right, with Robert Shepherd, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, in Upson Hall.

The team, which now includes researchers in SIPS and the College of Engineering, is developing earthworm-shaped robots that can burrow into the soil with minimal disturbance. The project received a grant from the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture, which supports radical collaborations aimed at solving agri-food challenges. “Nature has been trying to solve problems for a long time, so we’re copying what nature is already improving,” Bauerle says.

The robots, designed by Robert Shepherd, associate professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will be equipped with water-detecting sensors designed by Abraham Stroock ’95, the Gordon L. Dibble Professor and William C. Hooey Director of the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Lehmann will explore new ways to measure soil carbon forms, and Michael Gore, Ph.D. ’09, associate professor of molecular breeding and genetics for plant quality, a Liberty Hyde Bailey professor and international professor of plant breeding and genetics, will work on initial phenotyping characterizations, to help measure plants’ properties in real time.

“It couldn’t be a better team,” says Bauerle, who brings her own expertise in root systems and below-ground plant growth. “Cornell makes it so easy to just go knock on other faculty’s doors, and everybody is always very welcoming. The innate culture that we have on this campus is that people look forward to crossing boundaries and trying new things. And I think that’s why we succeed.”

Read the whole article.

Mann Library virtual exhibit celebrates campus trees

students outside mann library with fall foliage in the backgroundIn honor of Arbor Day and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week, Mann Library launched an online exhibit celebrating Cornell’s trees.

It’s a family-friendly virtual tour that includes tree descriptions, an interactive map, information from Nina Bassuk about the specific benefits that individual trees provide to campus (from carbon sequestration to reduced expenses for air conditioning), and coloring sheets drawn from the special collections illustrations for each featured tree.

Our campus trees stand always ready to greet–students new and old, faculty and staff, returning alumni, and visitors from all corners of the world. This spring many of us are unable to visit our favorite campus trees, rest beneath their canopies, or relish the sweet delight of their blossoms. Cornell’s trees are at the core of the beauty of this university’s campus, but of course they are also so much more.

As we observe Earth Day and Arbor Day from home this year, visit the exhibition to enjoy the Library’s rare and distinctive collections in the historical life sciences and bring something of Cornell’s trees to you, wherever you may find yourself.



Lab instructors adapt to remote teaching

Cornell Chronicle [2020-04-23]:zoom screen

In labs for the class Mushrooms, Molds and More, students are discovering fungi in their areas and sharing photos of them via Instagram and using online resources to identify mushrooms.

And in the class Hands-On Horticulture for Gardeners, Professor Marvin Pritts has asked students to design their own experiments, such as determining whether music helps plants grow, or what the best method might be for propagating Pothos, an ivy, or how to make natural plant dyes.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Cornell instructors to rethink how they teach lab classes, as remote learning has created special challenges for courses considered more hands-on, collaborative and experiential.

Read the whole article.

Mass flower bulb plantings blooming soon

Visitors to these plantings must strictly observe social distancing by maintaining six feet from others, no groups of any size, refrain from interacting with staff and exercise all necessary precautions to prevent spread of COVID-19.

daffodils along bioswale

Dominant bulbs in the planting along the bioswale near the Nevins Center shifts from daffodils in late April …

alliums in bioswale planting

to alliums in late May.

From Bill Miller, director of Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program, and Professor Horticulture Section, School of Integrative Plant Science.

There’s nothing like blooming flower bulbs to lift your spirits during trying times.

Since 2017, Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program has installed numerous mass plantings of spring-flowering bulbs around Ithaca that will be blooming soon. We made these plantings as a way of generating interest in a novel machine that makes it easy to plant thousands of bulbs directly into turfgrass.  You can see the machine in action in these videos from 2017 (Bulb planting made easy) and 2018 (8,000 bulbs planted in 11 minutes).

The backbone of most of these plantings are deer-resistant daffodils, which are great perennials and will last for many years. We selected other species to provide foraging opportunities for pollinators.

The plantings also reduce greenhouse gas emissions as they cannot be mowed until early June after the bulb foliage has withered.

We’ve installed other, much larger plantings with public and private partners on Long Island, and increasingly, throughout the state.

Plantings in Ithaca include:

Several locations in Cornell Botanical Gardens:

  • A one-meter wide strip along the edge of the bioswale near Nevin Center parking lot off Arboretum Road. Mixed bulbs from Crocus to Allium.
  • R. Newmann Arboretum. From Caldwell Road, turn into the arboretum, park in area to the left.  Planting is a double row going up the rise into the meadow.  Allium and Nectaroscordum bulbs flower in June, attracting an amazing density of bees and other pollinators).
  • A strip in front of the McClintock Shed on Arboretum Road includes later-flowering Camassia

Other locations:

  • In front of the Foundation Seed Barn near the intersection of Rt. 366 and Game Farm Road. Five strips each featuring a different mix.
  • Along the north side of Rt. 366 between Guterman Greenhouses and Triticum Drive. Mixed planting of tulips, daffodils, Crocus and others.
  • Newman Golf Course along Pier Road and the walking path. A very long strip with mixed planting of daffodils, Crocus, Scilla, Muscari, and Alliums.

Kumar receives Atkinson Center award

Shanthanu Krishna Kumar

Shanthanu Krishna Kumar

Shanthanu Krishna Kumar, a Ph.D. student in Greg Peck‘s lab, received a 2020 Sustainable Biodiversity Fund award from the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

Shanthanu’s research goals involve enhancing biodiversity in cider apple production by increasing the concentration of polyphenols and micronutrients which were more plentiful in older cider apple cultivars.

With support from Sustainable Biodiversity Fund, Shanthanu plans to identify genetic markers for polyphenolic compounds which will speed development of new cultivars for the burgeoning cider market.

The Sustainable Biodiversity Fund  supports innovative research by Cornell graduate students and postdoctoral researchers on the most pressing questions in protecting biodiversity.

Weekly turf webinars in response to COVID-19

In response to COVID-19 emergency, the Cornell turfgrass team is taking its outreach online with webinars via Zoom for turfgrass professionals:

The topic for all 3 webinars this week will be: “Best Management Practices for COVID-19, and what lies ahead in the essential care of plants.” We are hoping to keep these relatively short, around 15 mins, and then open up for questions at the end. The link will stay the same every week. No need to register, and of course no registration fee. We are recording and posting webinar videos to YouTube after the live session as we understand many people won’t be able to attend the live webinar every week.

Find links to these recordings on the Cornell Turfgrass Webinars page.

Kao-Kniffin Lab featured in Cornell Research

kao kniffin and lab staff with soil samples

The work of Jenny Kao-Kniffin and her team is featured in an article on the Cornell Research website, Ecosystems of Plant Roots and Soils.

Kao-Kniffin’s groundbreaking studies look at the effect of manipulating the bacteria, fungi, and soil that surround plant roots, and how that manipulation can help control weeds and increase crop yields.

“I think this way of modifying the ecosystem by altering microbiome functions has a lot of potential in the future. We need to get away from this routine of relying on genetically modified crops and their paired herbicides,” she says.

Read the whole article.

Seminar video: New Developments in Municipal Arboriculture

If you missed Monday’s Horticulture Section seminar, New Developments in Municipal Arboriculture,  with Jeanne Grace, Ithaca City Forester, it is available online.

More seminar videos: Horticulture | School of Integrative Plant Science

Seminar video: Invaders on our doorstep: Spotted lanternfly biology and management

If you missed Monday’s Horticulture Section seminar, Invaders on our doorstep: Spotted lanternfly biology and management,  with Betsy Lamb, NYS Integrated Pest Management Program, it is available online.

More seminar videos: Horticulture | School of Integrative Plant Science

Additional information from Betsy:

Based on some questions in the seminar, I looked for additional information on spotted lanternfly.  The information on native range seems to vary quite a bit, including where it was found and when, and the temperature range .  I’ve included some references here for anyone interested in learning more.

University of Florida Entomology and Nematology page on spotted lanternfly

From Lifecycle section of Wikipedia entry on spotted lanternfly:

Some researchers believe that a severe cold interval is required for the eggs to develop past a certain point, however this has not yet been confirmed.[11] Testing has been done to determine how overwintering affects the eggs of the species. The minimum temperature that will kill eggs was estimated by South Korean researchers to be between −12.7 and −3.4°C (9.1 and 25.9°F) on the basis of mean daily temperatures during their winter of 2009/2010.[15] This estimate contrasts with eggs having survived the much colder winter 2013/14 temperatures in Pennsylvania, United States.[16] Another study done in South Korea suggested that -25°C is about the temperature in which no eggs are hatched, while 15°C still had limited hatching, depending upon how long they were chilled and where they were kept.[17]

Grant funds high-tech system to improve grapevine pruning

vanden heuval with drone in vineyard

Cornell Chronicle [2020-02-26]:

Researchers from Cornell and Pennsylvania State University are developing a high-tech, portable imaging system that will increase profits and yields by making winter grapevine pruning more efficient.

The research is possible thanks to a grant from the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Program. The award begins this year with $for year 1; the grant will be renewed each year, dependent on progress, for up to three years and $160,000 total.

“We hope to have a thermal and multispectral imaging system that a grower can attach to an all-terrain vehicle, drive through their vineyard, and it will produce a map of live and dead buds that then can be used to guide their pruning practices,” said Justine Vanden Heuvel, the project’s principal investigator and professor of viticulture at Cornell AgriTech.

In the Northeast, cold damage to buds is a major issue for grape growers. Winter and spring warming followed by sudden severe cold can kill buds, as vines lose their cold hardiness after a warming spell. In years with large temperature swings, bud mortality can reach 90%.

“We have to really understand what the mortality level is in different parts of the vineyard to guide the pruning practices, because pruning is one of the viticulturist’s most important roles,” Vanden Heuvel said. “It determines shoot number and then determines the yield as a function of that.”

Read the whole article.

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