Zane Ashford - May 2018

Hello there, my name is Zane Ashford. I am an undergraduate at Montana State University studying environmental science/geospatial analysis with a minor in English writing. This summer I am interning for the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, while working alongside Cathy Zabinski in the MSU Land Resources Environmental Sciences department. I am going to be researching plant soil feedbacks in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana, ultimately to assess whether belowground plant traits can predict soil quality and properties.

This study collaborates with an existing experiment focused on mycorrhizal and pathogenic fungi on the MPG Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley, established by Ylva Lekberg and John Maron of UM. Utilizing the control plots not treated with fungicide from their study, I will be looking at the effects of monocultures on soil parameters. The primary native forb species of interest in this study are yarrow (Achillea millefolium), blanketflower (Gallardia aristata), prairie smoke (Geum trifolium), and hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa). These species represent a diverse array of underground traits typical of native forb species, varying in root exudates, senescence, and architecture. These species also differ in their aboveground organic matter input to the soil. In addition to these native species, we will also be looking at two invasive species: knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) and sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta).

In order to assess soil quality and properties, we will measure soil parameters indicative of nutrient cycling: PMN (potentially mineralizable nitrogen), soil enzyme activity, labile carbon, and soil microbial biomass. PMN is an estimated measure of the nitrogen available for plant uptake within a growing season; it is quantified by measuring N available in soil at time zero, and the N available after a 14-day incubation period. Soil enzyme activity is another important parameter indicative of nutrient cycling, therefore we will measure enzymes such as β-glucosidase, β-glucosaminidase, and acid/alkaline phosphatases in order to assess carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycling, respectively. Labile carbon describes the carbon active in the soil, therefore we will look at the active portion of organic matter to see what is used by the microbial community and how that changes across different species with varying root traits. Lastly, we will look at the soil microbial biomass, which is a dynamic parameter that changes across soil moisture and temperature gradients.


Image 1. Soil samples that are in the process of incubation in order to test for PMN, which will allow for estimating total plant available nitrogen over the period of one growing season


Image 2. Frozen soil sample extractions used to measure PMN at zero

So far this summer I have been working with a graduate student in the Zabinski laboratory, Kristi D’Agati, on her research about the effects of cover crop diversity on soil processes in agricultural systems. While working with Kristi I have been learning and practicing the methodologies that will be utilized in my study, once the fields and soil moisture content permit soil sampling. I am so excited to have the opportunity to engage in research while further fostering my passion for the environmental sciences. 


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