- Author: Lilyana Elola
Fungal-Bacterial Interactions: Bridging Soil Niches in Regulating Carbon and Nitrogen Processes
Grasslands play a vital role in the nutrient cycling process of both carbon and nitrogen. The state of California is home to perennial and annual grasslands, distinguished from one another by their growth patterns. Annual grasses complete their growth cycle in a single season, whereas perennial grasses exhibit persistent growth throughout the year. Perennial grasses often develop extensive root systems that provide a more stable mechanism for long term carbon storage than their annual counterparts. Historically, three disturbances contributed to the conversion of California's former native perennial grasses to its current annual-dominated status: European colonization, fire-suppression, and drought.
Oak-woodland adjacent annual grasslands here in Hopland offer a distinctive seasonal rhythm. The growth season of this grass begins when rainfall is hearty enough to germinate grass seeds, typically during the late fall/winter. While characterized by herbaceous vegetation, the structure of these grasslands depends greatly on local weather and livestock grazing patterns. Because the life cycle of annual grass is limited to a single growing season, there is less time for it to contribute to long-term carbon storage. This means that the nutrient cycling process in an annual grassland ecosystem is primarily the job of biotic reactions between fungi and bacteria below the surface of the grass, in its soil. The Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC) and soil microbial ecologist Dr. Mengting “Maggie” Yuan from UC Berkeley's Firestone Lab have teamed up to better understand how these biotic interactions in soil are affected by reduced precipitation conditions associated with climate change.
Dr. Mengting “Maggie” Yuan in the UC Berkeley Firestone Lab
Oxford Tract, Berkeley CA
Dr. Yuan's interest in natural resources began when her family would spend time walking together outside. This time spent in nature inspired her to think about the complexities of a much smaller biotic world. What kind of systems contribute to the function of smaller microbial ecosystems? She asked herself. This curiosity eventually led her to study environmental engineering in university. In 2011, she earned her Bachelor's degree in Environmental Engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing. After which, she moved to the United States to earn her Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Oklahoma in 2017.
In the world of ecology, specifically soil microbial ecology, there exists promising opportunities for innovation and scientific advancement. Dr. Yuan points out that there is no standardized model for measuring the Biological Fertility Index (BFI) of soil, because scientists don't understand on a fundamental level the heterogeneity of the soil. The analytical methods scientists use currently to measure soil fertility point more to a soil's habitat than its biotic function.
“A scoop of soil contains, on a more microscopic level, mineral surfaces and pore space” says Dr. Yuan. “It's important that future research considers the spatial difference instead of potential.” She admits that understanding soil on a spatial level is a challenging facet of soil microbial ecology. She calls this her “lifelong challenge.” Still, she hopes to work towards projects like these that create well defined frameworks for describing the probability of microbes to be able to interact with the environment and other microbes.
Fungal ingrowth cores, used to allow fungal hyphae into soil core samples
Oxford Tract, Berkeley CA
Spectrometer equipment, owned by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Oxford Tract, Berkeley CA
When it comes to staying up to date with advancements in microbial soil ecology, Dr. Yuan relies on her undergraduate researchers just as much as her postdoctoral colleagues. She cites collaboration as the mechanism of understanding what's going on in both her scientific community, and the greater academic community at UC Berkeley. She loves talking to undergraduates one-on-one to get a better understanding of their struggles and motivations for pursuing a career in natural resource science. Dr. Yuan says that, from her personal experience at UC Berkeley, “Students nowadays have a more developed understanding of their passion for climate action” and “bring to the table a valuable skill set missing from current climate solutions”. She is optimistic that undergraduate eagerness to participate in climate action research is indicative of a larger generational interest.
It was collaboration, flexibility, and the opportunity to connect with people on a national scale that encouraged Dr. Yuan to work on projects like these at UC Berkeley. She feels grateful that working in academia has allowed her the freedom to try and pose solutions to some of the state's most complex natural resource issues. Her work on this project holds profound implications for agriculture, environmental sustainability, and our understanding of climate change adaptation. The study's relevance extends far beyond the confines of HREC, as its findings will offer valuable insights applicable to other annual grassland areas in California, ultimately guiding land conservation and management strategies all around the state.
I lived and worked at a ranch in Santa Barbara the following semester, doing school online. During that time, I wrote my undergraduate thesis based on feedback from some regenerative ranchers and farmers in California who said that there's not enough information about how regenerative techniques are applicable on a given farmer's land with its particular conditions. To engage with this, I proposed an experiment to study the effect of the Indigenous Three Sisters intercropping system and no-till techniques on soil health and soil organic carbon across climate types. I graduated in the fall of 2021 with a degree in biology and a minor in studio art. Since then, I lived at and helped renovate a collective in Germany, hitchhiked through Greece and Albania, and worked restoring a piece of land in Bodega, CA. I firmly believe that a community facing a challenge is best positioned to find appropriate solutions for it, and that science should be done by and for the people it affects. Values which I'm excited that the extension system shares.
While here, I will be building HREC's capacity to conduct work around climate resiliency: supporting regenerative grazing and sustainable forest management; educating and facilitating citizen science using the land as our primary teacher; supporting new technologies on working and research landscapes; and building and deepening partnerships in the community.
If you're curious about the GrizzlyCorps program you can find more information here: https://www.grizzlycorps.org/
A great update from our Summer Camp intern Taylor Woodruff:
Planning the whole camp was one thing, but actually running the Sustainable You summer camp was awesome! I was a little nervous to meet all of the campers, but everyone was extremely kind and caring. The kids are what made the camp so great! Of course the activities were fun, but seeing them engaging and actually caring about our planet is what makes it all worth it. They were all such a joy to be around. Although I am the intern, I didn't feel like I was working. I wanted to be there and I was having just as much fun as all the other campers. The whole property of HREC is gorgeous, and exploring the area with fun activities was my favorite part. The hardest part of camp was to not just be their friend, but to keep reminding them that I am an adult and they needed to be listening when I was talking. If Hannah and I split into groups to do an activity, my group seemed to be a lot more off-task and thought they were allowed to do whatever they pleased. It was difficult for me to keep their attention when they just wanted to hangout and play, not listen to what I was trying to teach them. But for the most part, everyone tried to listen as best they could. Of course it can be difficult at their age, but they really tried and that's what matters. For me, the activities which involved a little more science were my favorites. For example, I got to do some chemistry with the campers. They performed water quality tests, and determined whether the water was healthy or polluted. It made me happy to bring out the microscopes, and have the campers observe spiders and snake skin extremely close. Putting the solar cars together was also great. Then I got to help tweak their cars to race faster. We got to see and appreciate the animals: five lambs, a giant wolf spider, multiple species of snakes, lizards, rats, mice, scorpions, and the sheep dogs with their sheep. Although we didn't see them in-person, the campers found so much more wildlife on their trail cameras. They got some awesome pictures of raccoons, foxes, and more! When I was planning for Tuesday morning, I was worried about our water treatment tour. We haven't been there before, so we weren't sure what to expect. It actually was a lot of the kids favorite tour, so that was great. Hannah and I might've been too prepared with planning, and ended up with a lot of backup activities. It was way better to overplan, than to have empty spaces where the kids would be bored. Overall, the whole camp was a blast, and I would love to come and help out if they ever need me again.
-- Taylor Woodruff
Hi! I'm Taylor Woodruff, the new summer camp intern for the Sustainable You! - Adventure Science Camp! I am 21 years old, graduated from Clear Lake High School in 2015, and am currently a student at Mendocino College. At the college, I am a tutor for Statistics and Trigonometry. I am also Secretary of Gaming Club and an active member of Anime Club! I will be transferring soon with a degree in both Allied Health and Biology. I intend to pursue Marine Biology so I can study and help conserve sharks! I love all animals and plants. If there's any outdoor activity, count me in! I grew up playing soccer, volleyball, basketball, track, snowboarding, waterskiing and barefoot skiing. Fun fact: I have been classically trained to play the flute since 5th grade. I am kind, very easy to get along with, and determined to get any task done.
The UC Hopland Research and Extension Center is such a wonderful place. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming. I had little knowledge of the area before being recommended for this internship position, but I am so glad that I was selected. There is so much beautiful property out here -- 5,300 acres! Such a wonderful place for researchers to come out. Speaking of researcher, I've gotten to meet quite a few!
I stopped in and got to ask Dr. Vardo-Zalik and her team all about what they are doing with their lizard malaria research. Being a science major myself, I was super interested and wanted to bug them as much as I could. She explained a lot to me, let me hold and identify the genders of the Western Fence Lizards, observe a vector of the malaria parasite (the Sand Fly), watch them take blood samples, and I even got to look at those samples under the microscope through oil immersion. All of it was so fascinating. She also shared with me her passion for sharks and rays, and I think that was my favorite part. :)
I also got to meet some of the Brashares lab researchers. Talking to them was interesting as well, hearing about how they plan to catch a mountain lion and put a tracking collar on it. They are going to help out during our summer camp to have the kids set trail cameras, set small mammal traps, and check the traps in the morning. Hannah Bird even showed me a lot of the pictures that have been captured on different wildlife cameras scattered around the property. There are beautiful pictures of mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, raccoons and deer.
Thanks to Alison Smith letting me know when, I was able to see the two cutest baby lambs! While preparing for an insect activity down in the creek, I got distracted by all the tadpoles! There were so many and some had already developed teeny-tiny legs. Super cute. It's also pretty fun to take a moment and watch the woodpeckers. Brook Gamble was nice enough to give me California Naturalist journal as a present on my first day. Brook, Hannah and I got to use them and try out some of the journal activities we plan to do with the campers. I also got to share with Brook an awesome video I took of a spider making a web. It might get posted on the California Naturalist instagram, so be on the lookout! :)
In order to view more of the property and get away from the computer for a bit, I was able to help out our volunteer phenologists. We went around to multiple species of trees and other plants to record a lot of data including how many leaves, how many flowers, recording post-fire data, and more. They were very kind and funny. I'm glad I got to help them out.
Planning camp has been a lot of work! Staying organized and keeping on top of my tasks has prevented me from unwanted stress. This has been a lot of fun, but I am much more excited to meet the campers and run activities with them! Thank you Hannah, for everything!
The wonderful NCCC Gold Seven team have been working at HREC for the past 3 weeks, they have been so helpful - all the HREC staff will be so very sad to see them go! In this blog post we learn a little about the team members and get an overview of the work that they have been involved in, the interviews were conducted by Hannah Wood, the media lead for the team.
As the AmeriCorps NCCC team stationed at the UC ANR Hopland Research and Extension Center, we've had plenty of projects to keep us busy! In the three weeks we've been volunteering here, we've helped repair fence lines previously burnt in the River Fire, were put in charge of some daily barn chores, helped build infrastructure for upcoming research projects, assisted with K-12 educational programs, cleared brush, helped tidy up the place, and sometimes worked closely with the sheep (tagging, paint branding, raising bummer lambs, and giving vaccines).
Although the work was daunting at times, and the weather was never perfect, we were thankful to be working and living on this beautiful property right alongside the welcoming staff and their families. We learned loads of information about California seasons and climates, lambing, the important research projects going on, Northern California ecosystems, wildlife in the area, and wildfire mitigation and recovery. And the baby lambs made our days brighter… even with rainy skies!
I've asked a few of my fellow Corps members some questions about their personal experiences at the UC ANR Hopland Research and Extension Center… and here's what they said!
Q: What was your favorite part of volunteering at HREC?
I enjoyed learning a ton from the very knowledgeable HREC staff. Their welcoming attitude enabled us to get a firsthand experience of what living and working at a research extension center entails. We worked with each and every person on staff and they all showed us the details and unique experiences of their work duties, while also being very open and friendly toward us.
-Jared Gasper: 19 yrs old, from Nebraska
Q: What has made your experience at HREC?
I liked getting insight into the life of a shepherd and seeing the day to day responsibilities of working on a ranch. I also really enjoyed learning about all the research projects! Overall my time here has been extremely educational and useful for developing myself and my interests, specifically when working with the Forest Advisor for Mendocino Lake and Sonoma counties on post fire vegetation plot surveys.
-Dariel Echanis: 18 yrs old, from Vermont
Q: What's it like living at the HREC?
I think we all can say it's been extremely comfortable living and working on the HREC campus. We were very cozy in the dorm house, and enjoyed going for hikes and doing physical training on our off time.. which included beautiful views of course! Hannah Bird made us feel right at home with her caring and immediate attention, giving us fresh lamb meat, welcoming us into her home for dinner, and making sure we were always having new and exciting experiences:)
-Hannah Wood: 22 yrs old, from New York State
Q: What was it like as the Team Leader coordinating daily projects with the staff?
The staff at HREC are all incredibly helpful and organized so I had a really great experience working with them. I never had trouble getting into contact with anyone and every member of the staff was happy to answer questions. The team got to work with a number of staff members who all had diverse bodies of knowledge and we learned a lot from them! Working at HREC has been a wonderful experience for me and for the team.
-Jessi Hagelshaw: 22 yrs old, from California
Q: What was it like volunteering on the weekends with the Ukiah Animal Shelter?
It was really rewarding! It was good to see that none of the animals we worked with before Christmas break were still there when we returned in January. I'm glad we got a chance to help out and I would love to do more work with animal shelters in the places we'll work at in the future.
-Alex Faeth: 22 yrs old, from New Jersey
Q: How was it working with the K-12th graders that came to HREC to learn about sheep?
Working with the school children was a great experience. The weather was cold and wet a lot of the days we did field trips but the teachers and students were enthusiastic to hike the property, which in turn, energized the staff and volunteers!
-Danny Zoborowski: 24 yrs old, from New York State
Q: Anything you'd like to say to the HREC and Hopland/Ukiah communities?
HREC's hospitality was great. The entire staff was welcoming and helpful, the dorms are nice and cozy, the land is beautiful, and it is a great place to hike... or just roam. Thank you HREC staff!
-Amir Corbett: 20 yrs old, from Pennsylvania
Amir and Alex show the "bummer" or adopted lambs to the K-12 students.
Hard work on the hill!
All the Americorps Gold Seven team worked so hard rain, snow or shine!
Clearing brush, to be prepared for future fire was one of the key tasks that the team helped HREC with.