NSU greenhouse essential to student’s plant-based research

ABERDEEN, S.D. – When Sienna Marcott’s fiancé proposed to her, it was in a field of sagebrush – a romantic gesture to Marcott, as the plant is an integral part of the research she’s conducting this year at Northern State University.

Marcott turned her love of plants into a research project that won the 2015 NSU Undergraduate Competitive Research Grant. She’ll be devoting much of this academic year to her research, and NSU’s new greenhouse is crucial to her work.

Her project is titled “Fungicidal Properties of Essential Oils and Secondary Metabolites against Fungal Strains Common to Damping-Off Disease.” Marcott will be distilling essential oils from plants, including sagebrush, to test their effectiveness as an organic fungicide. She’ll compare their effectiveness to that of a commercial fungicide, Banrot.

Exciting, challenging work

Marcott aims to create an affordable, sustainable fungicide for the organic grower. Currently, there is no plant-based organic fungicide for root rot on the market, she said.

“What we’re doing doesn’t really exist,” said Marcott, a sophomore. “That’s both exciting and incredibly challenging.”

Also challenging is that Marcott is juggling her research with full-time studies and a job. She was also introduced to the challenges of working on a grant-funded project – namely, it can be slow-going. But that slowness allowed her more time to read, research and plan the logistics of her project.

Marcott is starting with stem cuttings and root divisions, preparing plants for distillation in the greenhouse. Along with sagebrush, which is very common in South Dakota, she is also using bee balm and yarrow. Oregano and thyme will be her positive control plants. She chose plants that are easily accessible and have botanical uses. Yarrow, for instance, has been used in soaps and to stop bleeding.

She’s just starting her work in the greenhouse and said it’s a great facility with great people managing it.

“The people are what make it run,” she said.

Greenhouse crucial to project

Northern’s greenhouse is crucial, as the fungal pathogens her research will test are highly infectious to plants, and those plants will need to be quarantined. The three fungi she’ll work with are Fusarium oxysporumPythium ultimum, and Rhizoctonia solani. Once they arrive, the project will pick up, likely in November and December.

The project will also involve lab time and possibly use of some of Northern’s state-of-the-art equipment, such as the spectrometer and the confocal microscope.

If Marcott’s research is successful, she could potentially produce an organic fungicide as a gardening product. But she said marketing it to the agricultural industry would require a lot more testing.

Marcott is double majoring in business management and biology with a biotechnology certification. NSU provides students a lot of opportunity to blend disciplines, said Dr. Jon Mitchell, assistant professor of biology and Marcott’s research advisor.

“I think we do that well,” he said.

Love of plants grew at NSU

Originally from Champaign, Ill., Marcott has lived in Aberdeen for over six years. Her love of plants started in childhood, when she said her father “immersed me in the world of nutritional health and botanical medicine.” She has since become an organic horticulturist and environmental advocate.

That love of plants has continued to grow at NSU. Now working with Mitchell and Dr. Jodie Ramsay, professor of biology, she’s gotten to learn about different aspects of plants, including their chemical makeup. She would like to pursue botany and/or plant physiology.

Marcott’s project also started because of her own troubles with fungus when growing her own plants. She’s very interested in alternative, organic solutions. It was important for her research to reflect that, even if the concept is somewhat controversial in the scientific field.

“Scientists are not all of the same mindset,” she said.

And although she is a self-proclaimed “organic junkie,” Marcott said biotech is also important. She and Mitchell, a biotech proponent, work well together.

“There’s room for both,” Mitchell said.