KEARNEY – Joe Haag is working to aid corn plant growth and crop productivity while finding a way to combat climate change.
A University of Nebraska at Kearney biology student from Grand Island, Haag is studying with UNK biology professor Paul Twigg on his student research project. The work is focused on small plots of corn treated with biochar, a by-product from processing biofuels – in this case, switchgrass.
The goal of the experimental plantings is to increase the soil’s microbial diversity and help corn plants grow better.
A specialist in plant molecular biology, Twigg participates in the $20 million National Science Foundation grant to Nebraska EPSCoR, which created the Center for Root and Rhizobiome Innovation, pursuing crop improvement to help better feed the world.
Biochar adds carbon to the soil, and Haag’s project has two goals – to help answer CRRI questions about how biochar may boost soil bacterial diversity aiding plant growth and crop productivity, and to find use for biochar that could help combat climate change.
Twigg contends applying biochar ahead of planting is “a cheap way to provide better nutrition for the plant by enhancing microbial growth and diversity, and it’s a form of carbon sequestration: recycling waste into material that improves soil health.”
Haag’s project has a control plot – corn grown with no biochar – alongside test plots with two levels of biochar applied – 40 and 80 gallons of biochar in 25 square meters.
“It’s great having the opportunity to do this research,” said Haag, who grew up working on his family’s corn farm in McCook. The project’s seed, a common Nebraska hybrid corn, was provided by Haag’s brother, a Syngenta sales rep.
“This project struck home with me,” Haag added, “by looking into the benefits of what adding biochar can do for crop growth.”
Haag is returning to the land after 16 years in the military, including two tours in Iraq. He’s enjoyed having Twigg as a mentor and commutes to UNK as a nontraditional student – fitting science into his life that’s busy with a wife and two children.
After Haag completes his biology degree in December 2017, he plans to enter a military physician assistant program and return to practice in Nebraska.
Haag’s project is funded by the UNK Summer Student Research Program. Project-related analytical equipment in Twigg’s lab was funded by the National Science Foundation via Nebraska EPSCoR and CRRI.
The biochar project also helps a team of UNK biology students, including Kathleen Bartunek of Hastings, Renee Roebke of Seward, Karolina Kodin of Raonoke, Va., and Katie Arndt of Grand Island. They focus on other innovative research aspects. In Twigg’s lab group, members have community duties and individual roles to play.
“Each week we go out to the field site together, and we’ve all done our share of weeding there,” said Twigg.
He cultivates a range of different science perspectives. For example, Haag collects samples to study the plants’ physiology, then Bartunek works with those samples to isolate microbial DNA using polymerase chain reaction tools to make copies of variable sequences for next-generation sequencing, with comparison to genetic databases to measure the diversity.
Writer: Sara Giboney, 308.865.8529, email@example.com
Source 1: Paul Twigg, UNK biology professor, 308.865.8315, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source 2: Carole Wilbeck, Nebraska EPSCoR, 402.472.8944, email@example.com
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