Newswise — Jonathan Cumming has always been interested in plants and the way they grow. A professor of biology at West Virginia University, it all started when he was growing plants in his house as a child and, years later, he chose to focus his career on identifying specific plants and how they thrive in different types of soil. 

Today, he is studying willow and poplar trees by analyzing their differential sensitivity to soils that are left behind after mining.

“What the research allows us to do is select genotypes that will grow well in West Virginia on abandoned mines or reclaimed mines, so that we can put them in productive use,” Cumming said.             

Cumming exposes the genotypes of the plants to toxic metals that may be found in these soils, and uses aluminum in particular. After growing with the toxins, the roots and leaves of the plants are harvested to determine the amount of metal that accumulated in the leaves. If the plant was resistant to the metal, then it will be able to thrive at the reclaimed mines.

“The things that makes a genotype resistant and allow it to grow well on these soils are specific metabolic systems that exclude metals from the plant,” Cumming said. “We can analyze the root and the leaves and see those patterns of exclusion that allow the plant to survive.”

While most of the research is conducted in the lab, the trees grow in two different locations in Morgantown, West Virginia: the West Virginia University Agronomy Farm and on a reclaimed mine at Mylan Park to see how the different genotypes of the plants function in each area.

This research project is an extension of a previous study, which examined how different tree genotypes grow on mine soil for biofuel reproduction. Cumming is continuing that research while also examining the genotypes of a similar tree, poplar, to look at their ion signatures, or the nutritional fingerprints in their tissues that reflect healthy growth on mine soils.

“At the agronomy farm, for example, we’re going to look at the specific ion signatures of genotypes to see if there are different varieties that may be more phosphorous efficient or more calcium efficient or may have any other indicators that would make certain genotypes better choices to use in mine reclamation,” Cumming said.

A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural and Food Research Initiative’s Physiology of Agricultural Plant Program will allow the Department of Biology to receive funding for new equipment. The inductively-coupled plasma emission spectrometer, or ICP, will allow researchers to analyze elemental profiles of samples. The ICP is used not only to analyze plant genotypes to determine their metals and nutrients, but to analyze soils and water samples as well and can support research by faculty and students across the Department.

“This piece of equipment is really the ultimate analytical tool that you use when looking at interactions between plants and soils and other environmental variables,” Cumming said. The ICP will be in place in early 2018.  

To apply for the grant, Cumming organized a group of faculty from around the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences who would benefit from the ICP equipment. The group includes Jennifer Gallagher, assistant professor of biology; Edward Brzostek, assistant professor of forest ecology and ecosystem modeling; Jennifer Hawkins, associate professor of evolutionary plant genomics; Stephen DiFazio, professor of biology and Dorothy Vesper, associate professor of geology. They will be trained to use the equipment for their own research.

“At WVU, there is a good collaborative spirit for research, which I think is what helped us get together and put this grant forward,” Cumming said. “All of these opportunities to do research makes it a very ripe area for training graduate students and training young faculty while doing advanced research projects.”