Secret underground laboratory

“She still did not know what it meant to fix nitrogen. The image of some hidden underground repair shop came to her mind.” — Marge Piercy, “Summer People”

It’s not really secret.

So far, the pandemic hasn’t hurt me as much as it has many others. I have trouble recognizing faces and am deaf in one ear, so actually prefer teaching via Zoom (windows labeled with names and volume control). But I got moved to a much smaller laboratory space a couple years ago (part of a large shared lab), which was OK until the need for social distancing limited how much time anyone can spend in the lab.

Fortunately, our house has a large basement and my nitrogen-fixation instrumentation is portable. So I bought some lights and am doing experiments in my basement (image above). I only need to use my lab space on campus when I need a centrifuge, filtered-air bench, or -80 C freezer. Now that they’ve let my assistant, Sami, back in the lab (coordinating with the adjacent research group for social distancing) I may be in the lab less than once a week.

I’m mostly working with soybeans and their nitrogen-fixing, root-nodule rhizobia. My goal for the next year or so is to see whether some soybean cultivars (from a large historical collection) are better than others at preferentially supporting more-beneficial strains of rhizobia. If so, would growing those cultivars (or new cultivars with the same trait) increase the abundance of those strains enough to significantly benefit future soybean crops in the same field?

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