July 09, 2013

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By Matt Hughes

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Standing on a rock atop a sandstone escarpment in the Northern Australian wilderness, Professor Chris Martine, biology, spied a carpenter bee. He sharpened his attention, gripped the net in his hand and swung hard. The bee landed in the back of the net, but Martine, in his eagerness, lost his footing, pirouetting clean off the rock and landing 8 feet below on his right ear.

As he came to beneath the rock, Martine put a hand to the side of his head and pulled it back covered in blood. A 30-minute car ride back to town and five stitches later, a deep gash in Martine's ear was patched up. He spent the night in a hotel, but two days later returned to the field, hunting for bees and rare species of wild eggplants. A small sacrifice in the name of science.

In May, Martine spent three weeks on a field expedition in Australia's Kakadu National Park with Professor Beth Capaldi, biology and animal behavior, and senior cell biology/biochemistry major Gemma Dugan. The trip yielded more than a fresh scar on Martine's ear; the trio of researchers returned with a wealth of observations and samples for future inquiry into the very strange relationship between a group of uncommon eggplant species and the bees they fool into facilitating their reproduction.

Unlike most flowering plants, which have both male and female reproductive parts on each plant, these wild eggplants have distinct male and female individuals. In other words, some of the eggplants make pollen and some make seeds, but never both. In order for the plants to reproduce successfully, bees must first visit male plants, then bring their pollen to the females. But bees will not land on the female plants unless they too have pollen to offer, so the females do something sneaky: they make "fake" pollen.

"The question is: If the plant is going to go through all that, why not just make real pollen?" Martine asked. "The whole system seems to hinge on this idea that these plants want to avoid fertilizing themselves and becoming inbred. The plants don't want to fertilize themselves, but they can't just drop the pollen because then the bees won't come. So they make fake stuff for the bees to come, but then what's the consequence to the bees?"

That question would have been difficult for Martine, a plant expert and Bucknell's David Burpee Professor in Plant Genetics and Research, to answer on his own. So he teamed up with Capaldi, an expert in bee behavior.

"It was an invitation to collaborate," Capaldi said. "There are clearly really big questions to answer about the evolution of these rare plants. And as an ecologist and a biologist, you cannot go to Australia and not be amazed."

The majority of costs for the trip were underwritten by the Scadden Faculty Scholar Awards, of which Martine and Evans are 2013 recipients, and by the David Burpee Chair.

The researchers, including Dugan, aided one another in sniffing out the elusive eggplants and observing bees interacting with their flowers. They collected seeds to cultivate wild eggplants in Bucknell's greenhouses for eventual use in lab experiments, where they hope to determine whether bees treat male and female plants differently, whether the "fake" female pollen contains the same nutritional value as the male pollen and whether feeding the "fake" pollen to bee larvae harms the next generation of bees.

Dugan, a biology department summer research fellow, collected samples for her contribution to the project, a biochemical assay of the wild eggplants. She will present her preliminary findings at the July conference of the Botanical Society of America, which recently honored Dugan with an Undergraduate Research Award.

For Dugan, the trip provided a first experience with the realities of work in the field, where conditions are much more difficult to control than in a laboratory setting.

"I have an associates degree in biotech that I got before I came here — I'm part of the Bucknell Community College Scholars Program — so I actually feel quite competent in the lab," Dugan said. "Out in the field I didn't know what I was doing; I had to learn. And some things that I thought would be practical were not practical.

"It's something that I will not forget for the rest of my life," she added. "I did this really amazing thing in this beautiful place that I've never been to before. I learned a lot, and it was super fun."

Sleeping in tents in 90-degree heat, subsisting on canned tuna lunches and coping with mosquito swarms as dense as fog, the researchers had plenty of work just to survive in the harsh and remote Australian wilderness. Seasonal wildfires left in ashes much of the land they came to investigate, and one region they hoped to search was declared off limits, as park rangers had yet to check it for crocodiles.

Despite challenges and setbacks, the trip yielded enough material to keep the researchers busy through the coming academic year and beyond. Indeed, they may have brought back something even more important for scientists: a new perspective on the work they do every day.

"I study social insects, and I got to see a cathedral termite mound; I got to see magnetic termite mounds; I got to see weaver ants," she continued. "From the perspective of what it gave me as a biologist, sure it's going to have research potential, but it was really rejuvenating to be in a place you've never been before and be surrounded by so much interesting biology."