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Working Towards a Fitbit for Trees

Monday, July 17, 2017
Working Towards a Fitbit for Trees
Some of the materials used for DNA extraction: collection tubes, various buffers, micropipette tips, and a tube stand.

Hello again!


It is now week 6 and things are heating up (literally).


These past two weeks have been action-packed, as I’ve finally began to collect my samples and run my experiments. My project has two separate components: (1) testing Mongolian Oaks within the Morton Arboretum collection for bacterial leaf scorch and (2) measuring leaf morphological traits including moisture content, foliar nitrogen levels, and leaf area. My project synthesizes these two elements by examining leaf morphology in a pathological context.


In this post, I wanted to focus on the pathological dimension of my project.


In most cases, a tree is brought down by a combination of drought and disease. Insects are common vectors which injure trees by allowing bacteria to invade, and spread the infection by traveling from tree to tree. Bacteria like Xylella fastidiosa, which causes bacterial leaf scorch, grows in cavities and blocks water and nutrients from reaching the leaves.


A butterfly with orange bands on the upper and lower halves of its wings, perched on the edge of a deep canker in a tree trunk.
A butterfly perched on the edge of a canker in one of the Mongolian Oak specimens I am studying.
Alyssa Gao


Just as advancements in STEM research have allowed for doctors to diagnose humans, plant pathology seeks to understand and diagnose plants for disease. However, this requires a baseline knowledge of plant physiology and how plant structure adjusts in response to disease.


The caps of tubes protruding out in a wheel formation.
Samples held in a centrifuge in the Plant Pathology lab.
Alyssa Gao

In addition to showcasing plant health at the Arboretum, an aspect of plant research that is often overlooked, my research works towards designing a “Fitbit for Trees”. My project seeks to contributes to a baseline of information on trees which would allow us to refine our ability to diagnose the health and growth of trees in the future.


Until next time!

About the Author
Hi everyone! My name is Alyssa Gao, and I am one of the Undergraduate Research Fellows at the Morton Arboretum’s Center for Tree Science working with Dr. Chuck Cannon. I am a rising sophomore at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. This summer, I am researching the effects of bacterial leaf scorch on the leaves of Mongolian Oak specimens in the Morton Arboretum collections. Through this project, I hope to provide insight into the physiological responses of trees to disease. I am excited to contribute to the on-going research at The Morton Arboretum!