A research project in a greenhouse on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke seeks to unlock the secret of charcoal and soil.
The recent discovery of charcoal-enriched Terra Preta or black earth in remote areas of South America has prompted researcher, including UNCP student Theresa Williams, to see what charcoal can do for plants.
“Terra Preta has a lot of bio-char and is very fertile even though it’s about 1,000 years old,” said Williams, who is a senior biology major with a concentration in botany.
Besides adding to the fertility of the soil, the permanent nature of bio-char (which is mostly carbon) in the soil is another plus.
“Once in the soil, the carbon does not decompose, and because it is tied to the soil, it is not released into the atmosphere to add to global warming,” Williams said.
There are additional environmental benefits to the research project, if it proves out.
“If the bio-char in the soil works to prevent plant disease, then we can us less chemicals to grow plants,” Williams said. “If we can get a soil manufacturer to use bio-char, we will have advanced soil science.”
The project began about a year ago with the preparation of a research grant application to N.C. Beautiful, a non-profit foundation dedicated to environmental preservation. UNCP’s Pembroke Undergraduate Research Center (PURC) coordinates the grant.
“I like N.C. Beautiful’s mission because it’s about stewardship,” Williams said. “The grant proposal took a lot of planning.”
Last year, N.C. Beautiful added UNCP to its growing list of institutions eligible for undergraduate research grants, said Dr. Lee Phillips, associate director for the Pembroke Undergraduate Research Center.
“In the near future, we hope to establish additional fellowships like this one,” Dr. Phillips said. “Additional support for undergraduate research is always welcome.
“This is an interesting research project with potential for broad applications,” he continued. “We look forward to a long relationship with N.C. Beautiful and more projects like this one.”
With a $3,000 grant in hand, Williams and her advisor, UNCP plant pathologist Dr. Debbie Hanmer, began laying the foundation for the research a year ago.
The project is focused on one plant disease – Phytophthora nicotianaea - a common water mold and soil-borne pathogen that attacks ornamentals as well as tobacco and tomatoes. At UNCP, it is attacking a batch of garden-variety petunias.
“We picked this particular pathogen because it is relatively easy to culture and a common cause of root rot in plants,” Dr. Hanmer said. “This is a very interesting piece of research.”
Besides being a non-traditional student, Dr. Hanmer said Williams is no ordinary student.
“Theresa is a very good student with an inquiring mind,” she said. “She is very enthusiastic and not afraid to ask questions.
“In her other life, she manages three greenhouses, each much larger than this one,” Dr. Hanmer said. “She comes with a lot of practical experience.”
Williams works at the Lady Bug Greenhouse in Hope Mills, N.C., where she is the manager and in charge of growing. It is a family business, and she has worked there for 18 years.
Taking courses at several schools over the years, Williams’ goal is to go to graduate school and enter into research or teaching career.
“It’s been a long process where I grabbed every course I could,” she said. “At this point in my life, I would like to work with my brain instead of my hands.”
The study of science has had benefits for her business too.
“Science helps,” Williams said. “The scientific method and thinking in that way is helpful.
“I apply it the same way of thinking on the job,” she said. “It’s a process of elimination that makes you look at the whole picture.”
The picture in UNCP’s greenhouse is getting clearer as Williams isolates the amount of water mold she will use in the final phase of the research project. Standing in front of a row of purple petunias, she explains.
“We aren’t using any biochar yet,” she said. “Right now we’re trying to find the right level of pathogens to use in our experiment.
“If it kills the plant in a week, I can’t use it,” Williams laughed.
The plants are responding predictably with root and plant development graduating from poor to robust with the levels of mold. The next phase will be to use a similar amount of mold and vary the biochar.
“We did samples last year, and it looks promising,” Williams said.
Dr. Hanmer said the pathogen cultures and expertise for the research project came from NC State University and “is very interesting.”
“Terra preta research is a new research area, only about 10 years old,” she said. “It could be a win-win-win situation in many directions.”
“For instance, if a market for carbon credits develops, farmers who put it in their soil can make money,” Dr. Hanmer said. “This project is about disease resistant, and we have another group working on fertility.
“The project is going well and will continue into next semester,” Dr. Hanmer said. “Soils is a complex system and a lot of research is needed.”
Updated: Tuesday, October 5, 2010
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