Local plant disease research during global pandemic

For Rachel Penczykowski, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, and her graduate student Quinn Fox, who experienced the shock of shutting down experiments and working from home during the spring of 2020, summer 2020 became a time for adaption and perseverance.


Fox's experimental plan moves to Penczykowski's driveway. Penczykowski's daughter photo-bombs the photo. No experiments were injured. PC: Penczykowski

Fox, like many ecologists at WashU, would normally spend summers carpooling with colleagues out to Tyson Research Center to conduct experiments. The thirty-minute drive from WashU would spark scientific conversation, build collaborations and create friendships. But the COVID-19 pandemic sent personnel home in the spring and access to Tyson facilities became limited through the summer. The collective effort switched to flattening the curve. 

Fox and Penczykowski realized they could do their part in flattening the curve and still complete Fox’s experiments. Instead of working at Tyson, they could move Fox’s experiment to Penczykowski’s driveway. Plan B was born. 

“Having plants in my driveway was not ideal, as there was increased risk of vandalism, including from neighborhood cats or my two young children. But the plants had already been grown up in the on-campus greenhouse for this experiment, and we could either use them or lose them. We were just trying to make lemonade out of lemons this summer,” smiled Penczykowski.

Ecology in the driveway 

Quinn Fox returns from her field
populations to Penczykowski's
driveway. PC: Penczykowski

Penczykowski’s driveway became a sight to see. A few dozen trays of potted plants and several pink plastic kid pools covered the entire surface of the long driveway. Penczykowski's kids helped fill the pools and place trays inside to let the plants soak up water through their roots. 

In her dissertation research, Fox is studying Plantagoplants, common roadside weeds often found in human-disturbed habitats. Plantago infections by pathogenic powdery mildew fungi are easy to identify with the naked eye. Fox wants to know: does urbanization affect rates of pathogen infection? 

“Urban, suburban, and rural habitats differ in many ways that affect the growth and survival of organisms. Cities, for example, have more vehicular and foot traffic, and tend to be hotter than surrounding areas. I am interested in what these differences mean for plant populations, and species that interact with pathogens” said Fox. 

To figure out the answer to this question, Fox would have to drive 100 miles a day over the course of a few days and place healthy potted Plantago lanceolataand Plantago rugeliiplantsin various urban, suburban and rural parks across St. Louis City and County. One week later, she would collect them and transfer them to Penczykowski’s driveway where she would monitor them for infection and gather data. 

“The original plan was for Quinn to bring the plants to Tyson Research Center after their week of exposure to field conditions, but this was not feasible due to COVID-19 restrictions. We figured out that my partially-shaded driveway was an ecologically sensible place to let powdery mildew develop on the experimental plants, and we were able to safely manage the experiment while social distancing,” explained Penczykowski. 

Each potted plant was covered with a white pollination bag. Just like masks prevents the spread of COVID-19 disease from one person to the next, the bags served a similar purpose. 

“Because the bags placed over the plants were a barrier to pathogen spores, I was confident that the infection I was seeing on the plants was picked up during their week-long stay in St. Louis City and County parks and not during their two-week stay in the driveway,” explained Fox. 

Penczykowski with Plantago lanceolata in the greenhouse in spring 2019 -- a full year before campus shut down due to COVID-19. PC: Penczykowski 

While Fox is still analyzing the data, she has already learned a lot from having to adapt her experiments to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“I love working at Tyson, but it was a great experience moving my experiments to Rachel’s driveway. I learned that when push comes to shove, really cool science does not always need a fancy lab. Especially in ecology, because so much of it takes place outside, you can be creative,” said Fox.

For more information about Fox and Penczykowski's research on urbanization and plant diseases: https://sites.wustl.edu/cityplantproject/about-the-city-plant-project/