Root Pottery: An agroecology grad student creates rhizosphere-inspired art

Ceramics by Jennifer Schmidt.
Ceramics made by graduate student Jennifer Schmidt, and inspired by her dissertation research on maize and its surrounding microbes. (photo Jennifer Schmidt/UC Davis)

Soil microbes that live on and around plant roots in an area called the rhizosphere can play an important role in a plant’s growth and nutrition. Jennifer Schmidt, a grad student in agroecology at the University of California, Davis, makes pottery inspired by her dissertation work on the interactions between maize and its surrounding microbes.

Schmidt and advisor Amélie Gaudin have conducted research on whether domestication and modern agriculture have affected the relationship between maize and microbes. The lab has found that most of the bacteria and fungi on the roots of teosinte, maize’s wild ancestor that still grows today, are also found on those of modern maize, suggesting that although the two plants look different aboveground, much of the rhizosphere remains the same.

 

Ceramics by Jennifer Schmidt. (photo Jennifer Schmidt/UC Davis)
Ceramics by Jennifer Schmidt. (photo Jennifer Schmidt/UC Davis)

 

The plate with the blue edge above shows the root system of present-day maize, while the pink-edged plate to its right depicts teosinte both aboveground (green) and belowground (brown). “There, I was trying to make the point that the belowground consequences of domestication have been relatively neglected [by researchers], but that they’re important as well,” Schmidt tells The Scientist

 

Ceramics by Jennifer Schmidt. (photo Jennifer Schmidt/UC Davis)
Ceramics by Jennifer Schmidt. (photo Jennifer Schmidt/UC Davis)

 

The bowl above features teosinte and maize growing together with an intertwined root system to represent how much of the soil microbiome has been conserved during maize domestication.

Additional information about Jennifer Schmidt’s art

Schmidt started doing ceramics in high school, where she learned the basics of wheel throwing and handbuilding. She returned to ceramics when she came to UC Davis for graduate research, and she uses the UC Davis Craft Center. The pieces shown here were thrown on a wheel and then glazed by hand with a combination of underglazes for the designs and an overglaze.

"These are the first pieces I’ve made that are directly related to my research,” said Schmidt, “and they were inspired by a greenhouse experiment that will be harvested this week."

Jennifer Schmidt, UC Davis.
Grad student Jennifer Schmidt, UC Davis, merges her plant sciences research with the creation of ceramic pottery.

“These are the first pieces I’ve made that are directly related to my research,” said Schmidt, “and they were inspired by a greenhouse experiment that will be harvested this week. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to help with a collaboration between our lab and the Berkeley National Lab, investigating on the belowground consequences of the tb1 gene, which is involved in the domestication of maize from its wild ancestor, teosinte (both of which are featured on the pottery pieces).

“We’re looking at how it affects root architecture and root-microbe interactions, so I’ve had roots on the brain this summer. I’ve always found root systems intricate and beautiful, so I wanted to try to capture that on these pieces.”

"I’ve always found root systems intricate and beautiful, so I wanted to try to capture that on these pieces."

Jennifer Schmidt is working on a Ph.D. degree in the Horticulture and Agronomy Graduate Group, UC Davis. Her major professor is Amelie Gaudin, Department of Plant Sciences.

(The first section of the article was written by Emily Makowski, intern at The Scientist, where the article was first published. Additional information was added by Ann Filmer, Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis. September 17, 2019.)

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