Known for their brilliant colors and captivating scents, orchids are a favorite household plant. But many types of orchids are endangered due to constant threats from invasive species and habitat loss driven by climate change.
“Orchids are a well-known plant family commonly known for their showy flowers and memorable scents or flavors, such as vanilla. I find them charismatic since they are not only gorgeous, but everyone has an idea of what they are,” said Hana Thixton, a Riverton, Illinois, native and graduate student in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “They are found almost everywhere, from the Florida Everglades to the rock side cliffs of Madagascar, making them incredibly diverse. Since my undergraduate research, I’ve had the chance to study many orchid types, allowing me to identify the next steps for conservation efforts and what can I do to help.”
With support from a $4,000 American Orchid Society grant, Thixton will spend the next year studying spotted coral root orchids, one of the most widespread orchids in North America. They are unique because of their energy source: they receive most of their nutrition by becoming parasites to fungi. In fact, though most orchids have a symbiotic relationship with fungi at some point in their life cycles, this species relies so heavily on fungi nutrients that it does not use photosynthesis at all. Thixton will consider if that characteristic makes a difference in the plant’s growth and sustainability.
She will use DNA from the orchids and their fungi to understand their composition and how they interact. This will help her consider if that characteristic makes a difference in their growth and sustainability over time. Then, she will conduct a field study to germinate orchid seeds with their fungi to see what effect that relationship may have on their development.
Once it is safe to travel following the COVID-19 pandemic, Thixton also plans to
visit Uncompaghre National Forest in Colorado to collect samples to be used in
both her fieldwork and laboratory experiments.
“I hope to demonstrate how plant-fungi interactions shape plant communities,” Thixton said. “This research will hopefully result in an improvement to the current methods being used for other rare, threatened or endangered species in both the field and lab.”
Thixton knew she had found the right career path when conducting field research with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services as part of her master’s degree from Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville.
“I observed the fragility of orchids firsthand when I saw a frail population clinging to their fragmented habitat surrounded by farmland. It was also an old graveyard with stones dating back to 1800s, completely overgrown by prairie grass, daisies and sunflowers,” she said. “I realized what would happen if we were to fail at protecting this species, where they were too small and frail to compete for pollinators, and their pollinators were under attack from pesticides from the agricultural fields. This stuck with me since that population of orchids eventually failed to produce flowers for successive years after that field collection. It is a real example of the consequences of habitat loss and human practices, which drives me to continue my research for conservation efforts and what we can do to improve success in both the lab and field.”
Assistant Professor Craig Barrett, an expert on plant evolutionary biology, is Thixton’s research adviser.
“Hana came to WVU as a doctoral student with a passion for both orchid biology and conservation. She has significant experience in this field and has previously worked with many renowned conservation specialists on various projects,” Barrett said. “Orchids are tricky because they have special fungal requirements for germination. Some orchids, like the ones Hana is studying, have switched from what we consider ‘typical’ orchid fungi to become parasites upon fungi. Nobody really understands how these coralroot orchids, which have very picky diets when it comes to the types of fungi on the menu, have adapted to become such specialists. Hana is using genomic and field techniques to investigate the underpinnings of highly specific symbiotic interactions between the orchids and their host fungi.”
Thixton chose to study at WVU both to collaborate with Barrett and to be a part of the Department of Biology’s inclusive atmosphere.
“Specifically, Dr. Barrett works on the spotted root complex, which has been a long-time interest for me. I wanted to continue to study orchids, and due to the specialty of this field, it was hard to find a lab that would provide me the skills needed to succeed in this competitive field,” Thixton said. “He has not only welcomed me to WVU with open arms but has challenged me and pushed me to new limits I did not know I could achieve. The WVU community has been so welcoming, and I have developed lifelong friendships that have allowed me to expand what I know about science and the scientific community.”