Summer Placement: Helleborine, Horseflies, and a lot of walking

Lyndsey Dunn

Join summer placement Biology student Lyndsey as she talks through her experience working with Dynamic Dunescapes at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria.

Just a little bit about myself, I study Biology at Northumbria university and during second year as part of a summer placement from June to September, I stumbled upon this interesting opportunity with Dynamic Dunescapes at Sandscale Haws. I’m an avid plantspersons and I got to have a go at combining fieldwork with laboratory-based work.

Lyndsey Student Blog

Dune Helleborine

Epipactis dunensis is a species of plant within the Orchidaceae family. This Plant can grow up to 50cm in height and can be identified by its pale yellow-green colour with far reaching leaves and its narrow-lipped pink-white petals with a green tip. Normally found on lower compact sandhills around dwarf willow bushes Salix repens. Dune helleborine is described as mostly always self-pollinating which is different from other species of Epipactis.

A small green, pink and yellow flower.
One of the Epipactis dunensis located on dune slack 3 at Sandscale Haws in flower.

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Fungi can form a symbiotic association between plants and themselves. Normally within their root system the classification is either ectomycorrhizal or endomycorrhizal. The latter penetrate plant tissues while the ectomycorrhizal type forms on the outside of the plants root system. This can either be a mutual relationship or parasitic. Nearly all species of Orchidaceae species are myco-heterotrophic and form a relationship between a variety of fungal species. Usually at the critical point of germination of the seeds as the seeds don’t reserve energy. Many species retain fungal symbiotic relationships after this stage, but this area is still relevantly unexplained.

Sample collection

Four plants were randomly selected from Slack three and Slack one in Sandscale Haws, shown in the maps below. It was a real challenge with all the walking involved and equipment that I needed to carry, especially because of it being in the height of the summer months. I also collected plant location data but had to scale back my research as planning laboratory space, collection times and other logistics was harder than I had anticipated. This however gave me valuable insight to all the innerworkings’s involved with a project like this.

An aerial image of the coastline ad sandscale haws
An aerial image of the coastline ad sandscale haws showing map points where a student
An aerial image of the coastline ad sandscale haws showing additional points in which surveying took place

Back in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

I did culture-dependent Laboratory work, studying morphology and physiological characteristics. I wanted to get an idea of the diversity of fungi species present associated with Dune Helleborine. Media was used that supports fungal growth, roots of helleborine were washed with a sterile solution and roots were sliced in half and grown up on Agar. I wanted to see which fungal colonies would grow from inside the root samples and around the roots. In the photo below it shows the initial root colonies.

An agar plate is shown on which root samples are being grown
An agar plate is shown on which root samples are being grown and fungal colonies explored

Isolates of interest were transferred from these initial plates onto fresh Agar to attempt to streak pure colonies.  Colonies came in many colours which were Grey, black, pink, cream and green. Textures were fuzzy, shiny, and powdery and shapes ranged from curled, rhizoid, and circular which are shown in the photo below.

Lyndey agar plates.png

One fungus had similar colony characteristics across all root samples and was the most abundant of all colonies with six plates showing this colony morphology shown in the photo below.

A close up of an agar plate with fungal colonies growing

Below a possible colony of Aspergillus niger, it’s been described as ‘endophytic’ infecting plant tissue without causing disease. Identification was determined by its distinct characteristics, of little black floating spores in a rhizoid formation.

Close up of a dark fungus growing on an agar plate

What I’ve learnt

I’ve expanded my knowledge into species conservation, preservation and ecology which I wasn’t as familiar with being from a biology background. I developed my skills in the laboratory and research-based skills, understanding aspects of research I hadn’t thought of before. This really helped me when doing my dissertation as I felt more prepared, it was nice to do a project in an area of interest and not so much what my degree is based around.

In the future

I’m hoping to use these skills and knowledge after my degree, as I would like to be looking into a career in environmental science or ecology and this projected helped me realise this is what I take great joy in.

Thank you, Dynamic Dunescapes.