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Getting to the Root of Desert Shrub Research


March 4, 2004

John Schenk
Jochen Schenk, assistant professor of biological science, received a $320,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study desert shrubs and how their unique root structure helps them survive. His research will cover three continents.

Picture a pile of unwrapped drinking straws. You pick up a handful, put a rubber band around the middle of the stack and stand the straws up in a container with water in it. The water will go up each individual straw.

Like a clump of straws, the redundancy of complex root structures carrying water to a desert shrub is the plant’s survival strategy, and the subject of a $320,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation research grant awarded to Jochen Schenk, assistant professor of biological science.

The low, woody plants survive by having several stems, instead of a single trunk, like a tree. The grant will enable Schenk to study a variety of shrubs that grow on three continents.

Shrubs are the dominant plant growth in shrublands and deserts, which cover about 30 percent of global land area. Although much has been written about the ecological and economic importance, persistence and growth of such plants, says Schenk, little has been recorded about the shrubs’ unique growth form in arid and semi-arid ecosystems.

“These shrubs possess strongly segmented woody stems and roots, which in many species split apart as the shrubs mature, often resulting in complete fragmentation of the plants. Usually the split segments do not spread apart very much and remain intertwined,” adds Schenk. “Thus, what looks like one individual shrub to a casual observer is, on close examination, often revealed to be a clump of separate, but genetically identical, plants.”

Schenk’s research documenting the redundancy of root structures in shrubs will take him far from typical areas for study. With the help of students and colleagues from the University of Connecticut, he plans to study shrubs growing at the 30-degree north latitude mark, which passes through Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

After that, Schenk plans to travel to South America and South Africa to study shrubs at the 30-degree south latitude.

Schenk attributes much of his success in being awarded research funds to last summer’s grant academy workshop for junior faculty members conducted by Linda Patton, director of grants and contracts. “Working with her in polishing the proposal was very beneficial,” he says.

With South America and South Africa in the offing, getting to the root of this research project could prove to be a big adventure.

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