Zeke has been telling stories all his life. First as a young kid trying to get out of doing the dishes, then as a journalist, and now as a communications manager for the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He still hates doing dishes but loves telling stories.
Ok, so talking plants didn’t work out so well in “Little Shop of Horrors” when Audrey II started eating folks, but you don’t have anything to fear. Unless, of course, you are a tomato plant. Those guys need to be careful what the other plants are saying.
Professor Jim Westwood in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has recently discovered that plants use a sort of language to communicate with each other. Specifically, he found that when the parasitic plant dodder attacks tomato plants, there is a massive exchange of mRNA. It was thought that mRNA was very fragile and short-lived, so transferring it between species was unimaginable. The parasitic plants may be using this communication to exploit the host plants’ weaknesses.
“The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” said Westwood, who is an affiliated researcher with the Fralin Life Science Institute. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”
Just as long as they are saying, “Feed me Seymore!”
They climbed mountains. They interviewed countless farmers. They learned more than a book will ever teach them. They spoke hours upon hours of Spanish. They became inspired to learn more and do more. They ate guinea pigs. They cheered on the Ecuadorian soccer team with a few thousand of their closest friends.
In short, they had two weeks that made an indelible imprint on their lives.
Corinna Clements and Austin Larrowe have packed in a year’s worth of living over their last two weeks in Ecuador. Now they are getting ready to head back home, where they will begin writing a scientific paper about their research on the sweet naranjilla fruit. They are working with Professor Jeff Alwang to study the relationship that farmers have with naranjilla in the hopes that their work can help stave off the very serious problem of deforestation here.
For Clements, a rising senior who is majoring in agricultural and applied economics and minoring in Spanish, the last two weeks have been life changing. After reading so much about both subjects over the last few years, the trip has been an awakening.
“It’s like a book came to life,” she said.
Larrowe, who got his 32nd stamp in his passport when he came to Ecuador, said this is one of his favorite countries ever. The land, the people, and the culture all blew him away.
“Ecuador is so uniquely beautiful and the people are so friendly that it is really hard to imagine it without experiencing it for yourself,” said Larrowe.
Over the past few days, they headed deep into the Andean mountains where they interviewed some of the indigenous Ecuadorians who are practicing conservation agriculture. SANREM Innovation lab, which is managed by Virginia Tech, has been working with farmers here to help them develop ways to protect the environment while boosting profits.
As was so often the case, they farmers were welcoming and genuinely interested in talking with the two about their experiences.
I’m uploading a lot of photos from the last few days because we were all blown away by how beautiful both the people and the land were.
That’s it for this chapter of the VT Research blog. Stay tuned for a video of the last few weeks.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank Jeff Alwang for allowing me to come to Ecuador and learn about the work he has been involved with for so many years. I’d also like to give a shout out to Corinna and Austin for letting me tag along with them over the last week. They are amazingly smart, driven, and kind students. Hokie Nation is lucky to have them. Lastly, a big thanks to the people of Ecuador.
It is absolutely impossible to overstate how big and steep the Andes are — and how amazing it is that farmers are able to grow countless kinds of crops on them. Heck, it’s amazing that they are able to walk on some of these mountains. They are that steep.
After leaving Quito yesterday, Austin Larrowe and Corrina Clements arrived in Guaranda, a small town nestled in the shadow of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in the country. Because of its location close to the equator, it also boasts a peak that is farther from the Earth’s core than anywhere else on Earth.
Today the pair interviewed more farmers about their work with naranjilla plants, which they are hoping will be one of the many tools used to help solve the very serious problem of deforestation in the country. They are examining how farmers use a new grafted variety of the plant, which is less susceptible to pests and wilt. If farmers adopt the new grafted variety, they are less likely to have problems with the wilt and pests and less likely to cut down the forests.
After the interview was over, Larrowe even helped with the harvest.
Though the two are working extremely hard, it’s also hard not to be completely blown away by the scenery at every turn. At one point this morning, they were making their way down a curvy, steep mountain road as the valley below them filled with a blanket of clouds.
“Wow,” Clements said. “I’ve never driven down into a cloud before.”
Corinna Clements and Austin Larrowe have been working monster 12- and 14-hour days over the last week in Ecuador, where they are conducting research on the relationship local farmers have with the sweet naranjilla fruit (The two have been in Ecuador more than a week; I’ve only been here a few days).
So they had a day off coming to them.
But it’s not like they don’t pack in a full day on their days off, too.
Early in the morning it was off to Cotapaxi National Park, home to the world’s tallest active volcano at 19,347 feet. The two hired a tour guide who took them to the foot of the volcano where other tourists were braving the windy and snowy conditions to make their way up the side of the volcano that was a soft, sandy black landscape punctuated by red lava rocks.
This was a perfect example of Ecuador’s geographic diversity – not 24 hours earlier the pair were interviewing farmers working in the rain forest. Now they were hiking through snow.
After about an hour of hiking through the thin air, they made it to 15,953 feet. Too bad the weather didn’t cooperate and the snow moving sideways through the air made it hard to see more than a few hundred feet away.
Then it was back to Quito to take in the sites of the historic district, where the steeples from churches that were built more than 400 years ago punctuate the sky.
Tomorrow, it’s off to Guaranda, a city about four hours from Quito where Clements and Larrowe are conducing research for the next few days.
“It’s amazing how much we have done in the last 24 hours,” Corinna Clements said as she hiked through the dense forests to the thundering waterfall in the distance.
She wasn’t kidding.
In the last 24 hours, Clements, a rising senior majoring in agricultural and applied economics from Purcellville, Virginia, and Austin Larrowe have been on a whirlwind tour in the Andean Mountains.
They’ve interviewed farmers, visited local fruit markets, spoke heaps of Spanish, sampled the local fare, got soaked by cascading waterfalls, and glimpsed at a few active volcanoes.
The two are students of Jeff Alwang, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who has spent decades working on agricultural issues in the South America. Four of his students, two undergraduates and two graduates, are conducing research on various agricultural issues in Ecuador this summer.
Clements and Larrowe, of Woodland, Virginia, also a rising senior studying agricultural and applied economics and agricultural sciences, are examining the relationship that local farmers have with naranjilla, a sweet fruit that produces a delicious juice. They are working with the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab and INEAP, the national Ecuadorian agricultural research organization, to assess best management practices for growing naranjilla. The work of INIAP and IPM Innovation Lab could help slow the deforestation of these spectacular mountains while helping farmers increase their bottom line.
The two interviewed farmers and asked about the challenges of growing naranjilla, which include a nasty fusarium wilt and a constant battle against pests. They also trying to find out how much the naranjilla sells for in various markets.
After a long morning at the local markets, we headed to a restaurant that specializes in cui – what you may know as guinea pig. It’s a delicacy in Ecuador.
“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat it or shake its hand,” Larrowe said when his lunch came with a outstretched, if thoroughly charred, paw.
Turns out, guinea pig tastes nothing like chicken.
Some other pics from their adventure so far are below. Stay tuned for the next four days for more updates from Ecuador!