In a single growing season, fire blight can decimate an entire crop of apples, pears and other members of the plant family Rosaceae, posing serious problems in apple-producing regions like the Finger Lakes and Central New York.
This summer at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, biology major Alvin Randall ’19 helped discover the location on an apple’s chromosome of any natural resistance to fire blight. The results of this research will help growers select apple varieties that can stand up to the bacteria that causes the blight.
Working with Awais Khan, associate professor at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, Randall used a Cornell program called TASSEL to compare “phenotypic data using the computer program R to genetic data that was collected by the USDA.”
The phenotypic data — referring to those observable traits of a given organism — was gathered at the start of Randall’s research internship “by physically measuring plant development or by using the image processing and analysis software ImageJ,” Randall explains. “By comparing the collected data to the genetic data, we can then perform an association map and determine the location of QTLs [quantitative trait locus, or location of a particular phenotype] that deal with plant development. If the QTLs that line up with collected phenotypic data match the QTLs associated with fire blight resistance, growers can be informed to grow plants with certain phenotypic traits knowing that those plants will be more resistant to fire blight.”
After two weeks collecting phenotypic data using ImageJ and navigating the occasional software glitches, Randall began to see his hard work pay off, in particular “seeing the results of data I collected in a Manhattan plot” and “learning about Erwinia amylovora which is the bacteria that causes fire blight.”
Relying on his previous course and lab work at HWS, Randall had a strong foundation “when it came to analyzing the collected data” and “my courses certainly helped me understand the protein nomenclature when reading about Erwinia amylovora.” Despite a few nerves at the beginning of the project, he says he “quickly came to enjoy the Ag Station and working for Dr. Khan. The station itself has a relaxed environment and Dr. Khan’s team made me feel really welcomed and created a great environment that encouraged me to ask questions and learn new techniques.”
For many years, HWS students like Randall have collaborated with Cornell and USDA researchers at Cornell AgriTech (formerly the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station) and the Geneva-based USDA station. Each year at these sites, HWS students participate in summer or academic-year research, which often fulfills course credit for independent studies, Honors work or semester-long research projects.