Calstate.edu will undergo maintenance and be unavailable
Saturday, October 18 at 6 p.m. Pacific Time until Sunday, October 19 at 9 a.m. Pacific Time

Public Affairs

CAREER path: Tracking xylem channels of the chapparal

A brief Q&A with Brandon Pratt, Assistant Professor of Biology, CSU Bakersfield Recipient of a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development – CAREER – award

Brandon Pratt stands in a field of yellow flowers that is part of the chaparral od Southern California

Brandon Pratt pokes at wood, water, air, fire and evolution in the Southern California foothills, a chaparral world prone to infernos.

Specifically, Pratt is researching how a plant’s storage of water within its wood affects the abilities of its wood – its xylem – to also transport water (and nutrients) and to provide the plant’s structural support. Understanding wood’s vascular functions, he said, helps teach us about how plants are adapted to the environment, how ecosystems function, how plants evolve, and how to use wood more efficiently as a resource.

An assistant professor of biology at California State University, Bakersfield, Pratt is one of 23 CSU faculty members with active CAREER grants from the National Science Foundation. Through its Faculty Early Career Development Program, NSF uses the prestigious CAREER award (providing $400,000 over five years) to support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of the two.

Details about CAREER recipients in the CSU are available here.

Pratt’s CAREER grant is titled “Integrated xylem function: An analysis of storage, transport, and biomechanics.”

Image of air being pulled through the xylem of a plant as seen under magnification with the aid of blue dyesRecently, using blue dyes to highlight water movements within plants, he has been observing how plants respond when pockets of air obstruct the transport of water through their xylem. In one series of experiments, he carved into a piece of wet wood with a razor blade and watched as air was sucked into the vascular system. “That’s the problem,” he said, “plants sucking air into their vascular system.”

A few brief questions for Brandon Pratt:

Q. What are you?

A. I am a plant physiological ecologist.

Q. What DO you do?

A. I study how the physiology and anatomy of plants makes them uniquely adapted to their environment.  My CAREER experiments primarily focus on the xylem, the stiffer part of the plant’s vascular system that carries water and minerals. It’s also what’s referred to as the plant’s wood.

Q. Why is it important?

A. This kind of work aids in understanding the features of plants that allow them to grow vigorously and reproduce.  And this kind of information teaches us about the evolution of plants.

 It can also help land managers to better manage our wildlands; and it can uncover promising avenues for crop scientists to exploit in their efforts to grow more productive crops.

Q. Who’s been helping you?

A. In summer 2009,  I had two high school students and a community college student – who’s now at CSU Bakersfield. This summer we had Anthony Alvarez, who’s now a sophomore at Cesar Chavez High School in Delano, and Rob Whitbey, a teacher from Delano High.

Anthony did a really neat project: He was looking at cavitation – or what’s more generally known as bubble formation – in the wood of bay laurel trees. He asked the question: “Is cavitation reversible?” In other words, is there anything the plant can do to remove the bubble and restore function.

(Brandon Pratt’s web site: http://www.csub.edu/~rpratt/)

AUDIO

Please listen to the audio below for more detailed answers from Brandon Pratt.

Please install Adobe Flash Player to use this player.

TRANSCRIPTION

Hello. My name is Brandon Pratt.

I am a plant physiological ecologist.

I’m also a professor at California State University, Bakersfield.

What I do is study how the physiology and anatomy of plants makes them uniquely adapted to their environment.”

This kind of work is important because it aids in understanding the features of plants that allow them to grow vigorously and reproduce.  And this kind of information teaches us about the evolution of plants.

It can also help land managers us to better manage our wildlands; and it can uncover promising avenues for crop scientists to exploit in their efforts to grow more productive crops.

My experiments funded by the NSF CAREER award are particularly focused on part of the plant’s vascular system, where two types of tissue perform different functions. The softer phloem transports water and food for the plants. And the stiffer xylem carries water and minerals. It’s also what’s referred to as the plant’s wood.

We’re looking at the xylem.

Wood, of course, has been important to humans for building material, shelter, and fuel for millennia. In plants, wood makes up the water-transport tissue that is crucial for moving water and chemicals throughout the plant body to maintain healthy functioning.

What we’re really interested in in the CAREER work is the living cells, transport cells, and structural cells called fibers. To get a broad understanding of this topic, we are sampling woody plants with evergreen and deciduous leaf habits, and plants that sprout after fires and those that do not sprout. 

The NSF grant also helps us connect teaching and learning to the research…and not just for university students. Last summer – in 2009 – I had two high school students and a community college student – who’s now at CSU Bakersfield – work in my lab.

This summer, helping us in our research was Anthony Alvarez. Anthony is a sophomore at Cesar Chavez High School in Delano. And we also had Rob Whitbey, a teacher from Delano High.

Anthony did a really neat project: He was looking at cavitation – or what’s more generally known as bubble formation – in the wood of bay laurel trees.

He asked the question: “Is cavitation reversible?” In other words, is there anything the plant can do to remove the bubble and restore function.

Anthony had some really interesting results, and he found that, in some cases, there was reversal, but not always – suggesting an erratic refilling response; and this matched what others have found.

So now the question becomes why is this refilling response erratic; and this is going to be something we follow up on Anthony’s results.

We’re looking forward to bringing more students into our research and helping us to learn more about wood, water, and how their interactions affect plant ecology.