Tuesday, March 20, 2012

So, why did we move to Australia?

My Research at CSIRO
by Drew
Back in November of 2010, I saw an advert from two of the professors at the University of Colorado where I’d been studying for my PhD the past 5 years.  The advert was for a position as a post-doctoral researcher in Australia studying soil microorganisms in a forest fragmentation experiment.  After discussing options with the better half, I decided to apply.  Eight months later we were flying across the Pacific, with everything we owned packed into 7 boxes and 4 suitcases, to a continent neither of us had ever even visited.  If you’ve been reading our blog, you know we’ve been having a fabulous time exploring the culture and the landscape.  But what about the work that brought us here?

My current research project is at the Wog Wog Forest Fragmentation Experiment in New South Wales, Australia.  The experiment was started 20 years ago when the some of the State Forest was being converted into pine plantations.  Researchers here at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the Australian equivalent of the US Geological Survey + US Forest Service + US Department of Agriculture) took the opportunity to preserve a few small squares of native eucalyptus (the biggest patches are about 200 yards on a side and the smallest are 16 yards/side).  The goal was to see if native plants and animals could survive in small fragments of forest that were surrounded by the non-native pines. 
Pine forest on the left - notice the straight lines of trees, evidence of tree planting; Eucalyptus forest on the right
Photo by Kika, one of Drew's colleagues.
(Pinus radiata is the pine species.  It is originally from a very small part of California but is now planted all over the world!) 
People have primarily looked at insects so far at Wog Wog, and they have shown that very few species have disappeared from even the smallest patches, although which species are most abundant has changed when compared to nearby old-growth forest.  Picture an abundance of earwigs in the fragments versus lots of lady-bug beetles in the eucalyptus (the actual beetles that have changed Wog Wog aren’t quite so distinctive).   

But Drew, you said that you were there to look at soil microbes, what about them?
Old photo from when the forest was clear cut 20 years ago.  The square patches are the Eucalyptus forest that was left standing.
First off a bit of background...  Soil microbe is a broad term spanning fungi, bacteria, and microscopic animals such as mites, round-worms, and rotifers (a cross between an anemone and a caterpillar).  For the past 7 years I have been trying to help us understand how individual species of microbes contribute to rates of decomposition and, ultimately, the health of the larger plants and animals in a landscape.  My current study looks at soils across the fragments, the pine plantation, and the intact old-growth forest to see if microbial species have changed and if they are linked to changes in decomposition rates.  I can figure out decomposition rates because I’ve set out bags of leaves across the different forest types and am looking to see if some areas decompose faster than others.  I can figure out (roughly) which microbes are there by collecting soil samples, grinding them up (microbes included), extracting their DNA, sequencing it and, in a manner similar to the human genome project, identifying bits that are unique to known microbes.
Google Earth image of the Wog Wog site as seen from above.  Notice the square patches of Eucalyptus forests.
All this “research” may sound fairly simple so how does that translate into a 40 hrs a week job?  One thing they don’t tell you in science class is that most of a scientist’s job is writing and sifting through large numbers of results for strong patterns.  So, I spend 70% of my time writing articles/project proposals/responses to collaborators’ questions, reading background articles to understand what other people already know about whatever environment I’m currently working in, and calculating statistics on large spreadsheets worth of results.  The other 28% of my time is spent in the lab and about 2% of my time is actually spent outside moving about leaves and collecting soils. 

Progress on the project thus far is that I’ve deployed my leaf decomposition bags and have collected a good 100 lbs of soil.  Currently I’m spending my time in the lab grinding up soils and extracting DNA.  Hopefully by September I’ll be able to tell if soil microbial species have changed as compared to the old-growth forest control sites.  Next year around this time is when I’ll be collecting the leaf bags and will know if decomposition has changed.  

Well, I trust you enjoyed our little jaunt into scientific research.  Post a comment or send us an email if you have any questions.  Ta ta for now!


  1. Yay! I love hearing about your research! Very cool.

  2. Ok, so I don't understand a word of what you're saying but I'm fascinated anyway! The wog wog looks so beautiful :)

    1. Haha! It is beautiful there. I have some more photos that I'll try to post soon.

  3. Very cool! The pictures are reall neat. I didn't realize you did DNA sequencing - I assume you're look for unique SNPs for each species? Exciting to see a little genetics thrown in there haha ;)

    1. Annette, I sent you an email but I thought I'd also post the answer to your question here in case anyone else is interested. Drew isn't looking for unique SNPs because the variation across bacteria is greater than a single nucleotide in the gene that he is looking at. (He's looking at the 18s ribosomal gene.)

  4. I love that picture from google earth with the square patches of forest. What a neat opportunity.

  5. Good day! Do you have any journalism education or this is a pure natural gift? Can't wait to hear from you.

  6. Great writing and research..paraphrasing website can help with better writing.


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