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College of Science and Mathematics

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Desert Plants May Yield Evolutionary Clues

June 4, 2013

Contact: Charley Knight
805-756-2989; knight@calpoly.edu

Three students observing cactusSAN LUIS OBISPO — "Studying the plants of the future today" is how Charley Knight, a Cal Poly biology professor, describes the research he and his students conduct in the Mojave Desert.

"We're studying heat- and salt-tolerant plants that might become more prevalent in the future" because of the effects of climate change, Knight said. If so, scientists will have a head start on understanding how different species behave.

Knight's research tests the heat tolerance of different species of a certain type of plant, called an Atriplex, or saltbush. By subjecting leaves to intense temperatures for a few minutes and measuring their photosynthetic performance before and after, Knight and his students can see how quickly different plants recover from heat stress.

"This research is pretty technical from a physiological level, but it's very simple in the field. The students get a complete experiment within a single day, so they can immediately go into the statistical analysis and graphical presentation," Knight said.

In order to test live leaves, the research has to be conducted in the field, which means all the equipment has to be transported to the desert.

"There's a lot of creativity in minimizing space usage. It's a good experience in experimental design and execution," Knight said.

"You learn that science isn't about learning from a textbook or being able to recall trivia," said Travis Parker, a senior biology student who accompanied Knight on a recent trip to the Mojave. "And unlike a class lab, nobody knows if the setup will be well tailored to your specific goals or what problems will arise out in the field."

There are 50 species of saltbush in the U.S. and 50 different species in Australia, where the soil has fewer nutrients. This diversity provides interesting possibilities for comparisons between U.S. and Australian plants.

A group of scientists at the Arid Lands Botanical Garden in Australia invited Knight to teach them his method last summer and sent one of their researchers here this spring.

Graduate student David Gallagher enjoyed working with his colleague from down under.

"International collaboration provided insights that could only have come from a researcher conducting a similar study with species only found in that country," Gallagher said.

Gallagher has received a Mayhew Graduate Research Award grant to continue his research at the Boyd Deep Canyon facility outside of Palm Desert, Calif., this coming summer.

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