After 3.5 days of sorting through above ground and below ground samples, the team starts to make mistakes. And not the “I’m tired and I spelled Betula nana wrong,” more like “I’ve been looking at roots for 2 days and I STILL can’t tell if this root is a Betula nana or a Salix pulchra.” It happens.

    Scope Work

    After the A-Team does the best job they can to sort the roots into their species category, the B-Team comes in and cleans up their messes. And by “cleaning up” I mean looking at all samples under a microscope to see if the species identification is correct. Just like other living things, each species of plant has different traits, some of which are visible to botantists (plant biologists) and especially mycologists (fungal biologists). When you throw some soil scientists in then you really have a party…ok, just kidding, but they do know their stuff (and they really are fun…gals…). Oops. Sorry for the dad joke.

    What species is this??? Time for specialists to step in.
    Scope work
    High power microscopes help to differentiate species of plants by root.

    Root tips
    A fine root magnified to show the fungus growing on the root itself.
    Tired eyes
    Dr. Genet has had enough root identification for the day.

    Root Scans

    Once the roots have been identified by several sets of eyes (the last eyes being those on the microscope), its time for the roots to be scanned and sent out for further analysis. Each species of roots from each plot (Betula nana from Control Block 3, for example) is weighed and divided into 2 categories (3 if there is a lot of extra root…the 3rd category is just “extra”): isotope analysis and DNA analysis.

    Unique IDs
    The sample is given a unique number to designate where it is going for analysis.

    Isotope Analysis

    The whole point of this experiment is to see if tundra plants can access Nitrogen that exists at the boundary between the permafrost and the active layer. Remember, as the Arctic warms and the permafrost thaws, the Nitrogen stored in “Earth’s Freezer” will be available for plants to use (need a refresher on this topic? Click here). One of the most critical parts of this whole project is to make sure that samples are sorted, labeled, scanned on a fancy root scanning machine and then sent to an outside lab for isotope analysis (again, need a refresher on this particular bit of science? Click here).

    This tangle of Ericoid roots must be placed on the scanner without any overlaps.
    Root scan
    Each tiny root is painstakingly placed on the scanner to create a digital file and measure the overall length.

    DNA Analysis

    Even with the most highly trained specialists, there can still be a degree of uncertainty identifying root species by sight. To make sure that doesn’t happen (and honestly, this team generally has an accuracy rate of 90% or higher), a section of each root sample is placed into a tube with super saturated saline (salt) solution and sent to Dr. Lee Taylor’s lab for DNA sequencing to identify the species using genetics.

    Empty Falcons
    These tubes will be filled with a root sample, saline solution, and shipped off for genetic analysis.
    Filled Falcons
    Filled Falcon tubes, ready to ship off for DNA analysis.

    There is actually a more important reason for sending these samples off to Dr. Taylor’s lab… MYCORRHIZAE. But yeah, you’ll have to wait for the next journal for that one…

    Fairbanks, AK
    Weather Summary
    Sunny and Bright


    Malachi Williams

    Was the experiment to observe if nitrogen seeped through permafrost or where the plants using it

    Malachi Williams

    Was using a fancy scanner to prove if the roots absorbed the nitrogen?

    Kayla Richardson

    what exactly do they do to the roots when its sent for further analysis?

    Devaunn Parker

    My questions are could roots be used to determine other global issues? Also does the root traits determine how helpful it is.

    Nygeria Figgers

    I Was Wondering Do You If There Was Ever A Case Where When You Sent The Roots To Dr. Taylor’s lab To Be Analyzed, When The Results Came Back Where There Any Roots That Couldn't Be Identified At All.

    Lamya Powell

    Hi Ms. Kemp, I noticed how you said the team has a 90% accuracy rate or higher, I was wondering what would happen if the other 10% came into place, if after all of the analysis, they still misidentified a root?

    Jamiyah tylon

    It says group b comes in and looks at the samples to see if the species identification that group a created I s right... But what if group A dissagress with group B's classification... Are the samples then taken to somewhere else to be identified

    Jamiyah tylon

    It says group b comes in and looks at the samples to see if the species identification that group a created I s right... But what if group A dissagress with group B's classification... Are the samples then taken to somewhere else to be identified

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Jamiyah,
    Good question - very often the team is pretty confident and agrees with each other on the classification. Usually, if the team disagrees, it's more likely that everyone is in agreement that they don't know. For example, there are two types of roots that look very, very similar - even under a microscope. In that case, these roots will be labeled with a common group name and sent for genetic analysis for further identification.

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Lamya,
    Part of the reason the roots are sent to another lab is so that they can be identified genetically. Scientists know the DNA sequences of all these different species of plants (and have them loaded into computer programs) so they can be identified correctly.

    Rhaniya Dawson

    I know this might be off topic but I saw that you said they were trying to identify the species by using genetics and I was wondering if that process is the same when identifying any type of species?

    Robert Walker

    How do you sot the different types of roots?

    Bridget Grason

    How can you tell which soil is which (i.e. texture, color, etc.)?