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Researching the Autumn Olive
May 24, 2007

A Calvin College sophomore and a Calvin biology professor recently received $3,000 each from the Undergraduate Research Grants for the Environment (URGE) program.

Autumn OliveKelly Edwards, 19, a biology and Spanish major from Grand Blanc, Michigan, will partner with biology professor David Dornbos for a 12-week stint from now to August, studying the autumn olive.

They will work out of the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute biological field station and research just what it is that makes the autumn olive so invasive.

The shrub, native to eastern Asia and brought to North America for ornamental use in the 1800s, is aggressively colonizing large areas of both woodland and meadow at the institute and throughout Michigan, running roughshod over the native species.

Dornbos and Edwards hope to figure out what makes the shrub invasive at the physiological level and through that understanding learn both how to restore infested areas and keep the weed out of un-infested areas.

Photosynthesis may be key to autumn olive’s aggression, Dornbos believes.

“Behaviorally it’s an awful lot like buckthorn," he says, "which we struggle to eradicate on the Calvin campus. We know from the two years of work with buckthorn that once it gets going, nothing else keeps up with it photo-synthetically. What we’re trying to do is figure out how fast the autumn olive does photosynthesis compared to native competitors."

Autumn has a further edge in the competition, he says, for unlike buckthorn, which prefers to grow in the open areas or on the edges of vegetation, autumn olive is an equal-opportunity invader.

“We’re finding that not only is autumn olive invading the open areas, but it’s also colonizing mature forested areas in Cedar Creek. That is pretty unusual,” Dornbos says. “What Kelly is trying to find out is how autumn olive competes so well in both types of areas.”

Edwards is living and working at the institute, located southeast of Grand Rapids near Hastings, with 15 other URGE grant recipients from local colleges and universities, including Aquinas, Cornerstone, Grand Valley and Hope.

Her summer research will consist of two projects. She will measure the photosynthesis rates of autumn olive versus native species.

“We have a machine that clamps on a leaf and it measures how much CO2 is going into the leaf,” Dornbos says.

She will also work on restoring areas around the institute that have been colonized by the invader, eliminating the autumn olive and studying how fast it re-establishes itself.

A pre-med student with her eye on the mission field, Edwards eventually hopes to do AIDS research, although she also finds the plant world fascinating.

“I’m more interested than I thought I would be in botany,” she says of her summer research. “This project just seemed right.”

She also likes the institute setting, 600-acres of wetlands, forests, marshes, streams, lakes, and prairies complete with a wet lab, classrooms, visitors center and farmhouse dormitory.

"To be honest, I’m more comfortable in the rural areas,” Edwards says. “I’m not a city person.”

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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