Shawn Sorrels is currently an undergraduate student studying Genetics in Plant Biology and Pathology. He is an intern at the Rutgers Energy Institute for the summer of 2017, working with Professors Eric Lam and Gal Hochman.
1: Please briefly describe your research. I study the microbiome of plants. Specifically, the bacteria ensemble that colonize a host plant’s outer surface (epiphytes), as well as the bacteria community that are within the internal tissues of a host plant (endophytes). These bacteria can provide benefits to the host plant, such as nutrient acquisition and protection from pathogens. Inoculating crops that can be used for biofuel and food with plant-growth promoting bacteria could boost the efficiency of plant biomass production while minimizing the need for expensive and environmentally dangerous fertilizers and pesticides. This summer I conducted two experiments. The first experiment was a nutrient assay which measured the biomass of a model grass (Brachypodium distachyon) that was inoculated with specific strains of bacteria and grown under different nutrient conditions. The objective of the assay was to determine which of three bacteria performed best in which nutrient condition relative to increased biomass in the host plant. The second experiment studied the colonization patterns of the three bacteria after inoculation onto the host plant. Characterizing the behaviors of plant associated bacteria could lead to directed community engineering. Engineering communities of bacteria that best help a crop of interest grow faster, larger, and healthier.
2: How did you come to be involved in this research? I have been working with the microbiome of seaweed and duckweed for one year in the lab of Dr. Eric Lam. This summer I wanted to apply the new bacterial characterization techniques developed in our lab to a model organism for cereal biofuel crops.
3: Where do you see your research fitting into our energy future? Petroleum fuels are currently the leader in transportation energy. Improving the efficiency and biomass production of high-yield grasses as feedstocks could make biofuels a better competitor in this field. Engineered microbial communities’ ability to increase biomass in host plants also means less fertilizer and pesticide need to be used for crop production. Improving biomass production in biofuel crops, and using less harmful chemicals, will help make our energy future more sustainable.