Abigail Kamke presenting her research at during the 2020 Undergraduate Research Day at the state capitol

Each year, the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, KS hosts a Kansas Undergraduate Research Day. The event is an opportunity for undergraduate students to present their research experiences to state lawmakers. Forty Kansas undergraduate students from the state’s eight public 4-year institutions are invited to participate. Students apply through their own institutions and projects are selected based on their impactful benefits to the state of Kansas. All full-time currently enrolled undergraduate students in good academic standing are eligible to apply, and students from all majors are encouraged to submit their research projects. Institutions are urged to select participants representing a geographical distribution from across the state. The purpose of the event is to showcase the unique research opportunities students have at the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) designated universities and to emphasize higher education’s role in developing a skilled workforce to further the economic growth of the state. The applicants’ research projects are evaluated on how they were completed under the guidance of a faculty mentor; how they follow the methodology of the appropriate academic discipline; and if the project can be presented as a professional academic poster. Selected individuals then must agree to undergo presentation training prior to the event to be able to convey their research experience and enthusiasm to state representatives, senators, and other state officials in a poster session. This event is not a competition, however, students are recognized for the honor of participating through a certificate ceremony.

On March 4, 2020, Kansas State University (KSU) and MAPS undergraduate student Abigail Kamke, a sophomore studying Microbiology, presented her research project at the annual Kansas Undergraduate Research Day. The title of her project was Rhizobiome Diversity and Its Impact on Drought Resistance in Andropogon gerardii which she completed under the direction of Dr. Sonny T. M. Lee, Assistant Professor of Biology and recent KSU hire now working on the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS). Abigail explained her research as follows: “Andropogon gerardii, commonly known as a big bluestem grass, is found across the United States and Canada but mostly dominates the Midwest, stretching from southern Illinois to western Kansas. Previous studies demonstrated that within this region, there are three specific ecotypes that are differentiated by precipitation: dry, mesic, and wet. Andropogon gerardii seeds from the three different ecotypes were planted in the Colby, KS reciprocal garden to understand the future impact of climate change on the plants since the native dry conditions are expected to become more widespread in Kansas. In this project, we examined the environmental impact on Andropogon gerardii’s plant-host physiology, as well as its rhizosphere microbiome characteristics to identify bacterial populations that may be highly adaptable to drought conditions. To study this, the grasses’ roots were gathered from each reciprocal plot during the summer of 2019. We extracted the microbial DNA from the root samples, using a modified bead-beating protocol and purified them through an Omega E.Z.N.A. Kit. We profiled the 16S rRNA V4 amplicon of 55 samples to determine the bacterial rhizosphere’s compositional differences between the Andropogon gerardii ecotypes. The differences between the ecotypic rhizobiomes were then compared using various bioinformatic and data analysis protocols. We used Qiime 2 Version 2019.10 to process the sequences and profile the rhizobiome community structure. We then used PERMANOVA in the R Adonis package to test if there were any statistical differences between the ecotypic rhizobiome communities, and to see which microbial populations are distinct to their respective ecotypes. Our results showed that the host ecotypes had an influence on the bacterial community structure but not the diversity. The community composition in the wet and mesic ecotypes was more similar to each other, and interestingly, there are higher phenotypic similarities between the wet and mesic as compared to the dry ecotypes. On the other hand, the dry bacterial community was not only different from the other two ecotypes, but there was also a high degree of dissimilarity among the samples, demonstrating the impact of the environment on the bacterial composition. So far this is an ongoing project, but this study enabled us to take the first step in identifying the core microbiome that may increase the plant host resistance to drought conditions.” When asked why she had selected this project, she said, “As an avid hiker of the Konza Prairie, the conservation of our environment is very important to me. This project enabled me to combine my passion for nature and microbiology by identifying the species of microbes involved in drought resistance in an important species of prairie grass.” Abigail said her favorite part of the whole experience was performing the DNA extraction and explained “I prepared the root samples in microcentrifuge tubes and through the process of adding buffers, incubating, and centrifuging, I was left with the microbial DNA in the tube.”  Throughout this research experience, she said she learned “the specifics of DNA extraction from Dr. Lee, and being a more visual learner, I truly valued this practical application of my lecture material. In addition to lab techniques, I was able to work on my project management skills by juggling school and the research project. And lastly, I learned to format my research findings into a poster to easily summarize our findings and present this to legislators by highlighting the importance of this grass to Kansas. It was a very rewarding experience to present this to senators, house representatives, and agricultural lobbyists to explain the importance of preserving this abundant prairie grass as bluestem grasses are a leading food source for livestock and help reduce the effects of soil erosion through nutrient cycling.”

Abigail has moved around throughout her life living in four states with Wichita, KS being the most recent. While attending KSU, she has received academic honors each semester; is an active member of the Microbiology Club; and in 2018, was a piccolo player in the KSU Marching Band. In the fall of 2019, after taking an Undergraduate Microbiology Practicum for the General Microbiology Lab, she joined the Lee Lab as an undergraduate research assistant.

Before the COVID -19 Pandemic, Abigail planned to present her poster again at the KSU Division of Biology’s 21st Annual Undergraduate Research Forum in April. She has also submitted this project abstract to the Ecological Society of America in hopes of presenting at their national conference in August. As for her future plans, she said, “This is an ongoing project. We are currently extracting DNA from more Colby root samples as well as samples from other reciprocal gardens across Kansas. I am going to perform more in-depth bioinformatics and statistical analyses after more microbial DNA is sequenced. This summer, I hope to go to the Colby site to run some biochemical tests on the soil there. I am continuing the Andropogon gerardii drought resistance research and hope to publish a paper in the near future.” Then, she added, “I am also exploring various graduate programs and careers in Microbiology.”