Zhao ’17 Fights Apple Blight – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Zhao ’17 Fights Apple Blight

Amelia Zhao ’17 is investigating the bacteria (Erwinia amylovora) that is responsible for the disease called fire blight, to develop effective treatments for the fruit trees it infects. Fire blight, which affects apples, pears and other members of the plant family Rosaceae, can decimate an entire crop in a single growing season, making it a serious problem in apple-producing regions like the Finger Lakes and Central New York.

This summer at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES), Zhao analyzed the effects of antibiotics, biological controls and a growth regulator on fire blight. She also examined how these treatments impacted the growth of the apple trees she was studying, by visually measuring disease incidence and growth parameters, such as fruit diameter, primary shoot length, and the number of fruit in the test orchard. 

Zhao’s summer research was supported by the Thomas J. Glover Endowed Research Fund on the Natural Sciences, established by HWS alums and faculty in honor of Professor Emeritus of Biology Thomas Glover, who more than 30 years ago spearheaded the relationship between the Colleges and the NYSAES.

“Working in the lab has given me an invaluable look into what a career in research could be like,” Zhao says. “Working at the station has also given me more insight into the dynamics of and what life is like in Geneva.”

This fall, Zhao continues her work at NYSAES as she studies the CRISPR gene of the same fire blight bacteria, using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique in microbiology that enables diagnosis and monitoring of genetic diseases.

“Our lab receives samples from growers all around the country and tests them for fire blight,” she explains. “If they test positive for fire blight and their CRISPR identity is of interest, I run PCR on the DNA to identify the CRISPR genes and then sequence the DNA to identify the profile.”

For many years, HWS students like Zhao have collaborated with Cornell researchers at NYSAES. The research often fulfills course credit for independent studies, Honors work or semester-long research projects. Students also may receive monetary compensation for such research work.