Professor wins grant to study fern populations

Earlier this year, Dr. Janet Steven, Assistant Professor of Biology, received a $1000 grant from the Nature Foundation at Wintergreen to conduct age-related DNA research on ferns.

The grant will “pay for reagents we need in the lab and data analysis we couldn’t do otherwise,” Steven said.

“We’re doing a project in which we’re using DNA to genotype individuals in the field and then, in order to analyze the DNA, we need specialized reagents.”

Steven continues by saying “we ship off samples and somebody else does the actual fragment size analysis, so it’s expensive.”

While ferns are common to the Blue Ridge Mountain area of Virginia, there is scant research on them, particularly on how they age and reproduce.

Steven is hoping to bridge that particular gap in knowledge. Ferns have horizontal roots that seem to indicate all plants originated from a central one and grew out over the years.

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Abbott

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Abbott

Part of Steven’s research will confirm this trend. “When you go out and you’re in this big patch of ferns, is it one plant that’s been growing horizontally for years and years or is it a whole bunch of different plants?

In order to figure out whether or not it’s one giant plant, we take bits of leaves, grind them up, get the DNA out and basically do paternity analysis on them,” she said.

“It might be that they are 500 years old and have been living on the forest floor for hundreds of years growing very slowly. But we won’t know until we look at their DNA.”

A portion of this project will be researched by student research assistants.

Steven has been working on this project since her time at Sweet Briar College where it began as a simple research service learning project.

That aspect of service was strengthened at CNU’s campus.

The students will help with every aspect of this project, from paternity testing to sample collection.

Besides the implications for biology research, Steven notes the importance of this project in generating greater appreciation for nature.

“Some of [the project] is just so we understand how the natural world works. And then some of it is so people understand what they’re looking at when they’re in the woods to gain a better appreciation of it,” she said.

“It will be useful for the Nature Foundation to educate people on the woods around them.”