With funding from Georgia Sea Grant, Kostka is studying the microbes associated with Spartina to better understand how the plant microbiome supports the health of Georgia’s salt marshes.
“In a way, this is discovery-based science because no one has studied the microbes that are intimately associated with these plants,” says Kostka. “When you look at the marsh from a large scale it really looks constant and consistent, but when you get down at the micro level you see all kinds of differences. There's a lot of complexity there.”
The research team wants to know how the microbial community changes as you move from the interior of the marsh, where the growth of Spartina is stunted and the plants are short, to the taller, lush marsh growing near the tidal creeks.
At the site, they measure salinity, oxygen, and pH as well as the height and density of Spartina at different spots along a transect. A hole punch is used to collect samples of Spartina blades, which will be measured for nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen. Soil samples and root material are taken back to the lab where the latest gene sequencing and metagenomics methods will be used to identify individual microbes and understand the microbial processes that improve the health of the plant.
Elisabeth Pinion, an AP environmental science teacher from Cumming, Georgia, is working alongside Kostka and his team. Pinion is one of 16 educators participating in Schoolyard Program of the NSF-supported Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project, which is hosted every summer at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island. As part of the program, teachers spend a week on the coast, shadowing different researchers in the field and learning about sampling methods and processes that can be taken back to the classroom.
Pinion recognized similarities between the topics she covers in class and the research methods used for this project.
“Studying parameters that determine the productivity of different ecosystems is something that we generally spend a lot of time on,” says Pinion. “What they are looking at is very applicable to the classroom.”
Throughout the week, Kostka will have the opportunity to engage multiple educators in the field, showing him or her how they collect samples for microbiology and discussing the important ecosystem services that salt marshes provide.
"The Schoolyard Program is a great way to give the teachers a behind-the-scenes look at how science is conducted, including sometimes having to rethink your strategy once you get out in the field," says Merryl Alber, professor of marine sciences at UGA and lead PI of the GCE LTER project. "It’s also beneficial for researchers, who have a chance to interact with the teachers and think creatively about how to bring the science back into the classroom.”