How did the unique light in the Arctic affect plant life millions of years ago, and what can that tell us about how ecosystems will respond to future climate warming?
Qin Leng, Ph.D., a professor of biological and biomedical sciences at Bryant University, is seeking to answer this and other research questions about the ancient environment. She described some recent findings during the Geological Society of America (GSA)’s annual conference, which drew about 5,000 international geoscientists to Denver in October. Leng says the gathering offered a great opportunity to exchange ideas and solicit feedback on research-in-progress.
“The unique light regime in the Arctic has long been recognized to influence plant photosynthesis, thus critically regulating almost all [plant life] processes,” Leng noted in her conference abstract. “Reconstructing paleo-environments in the Arctic plays a critical role in understanding Earth system dynamics in the past and holds a key in predicting future climate and ecosystem changes.”
The work she presented involves studying modern and fossil leaves from deciduous conifers, including Metasequoia (dawn redwood), Taxodium (bald cypress), and Larix (larch) trees. Her lab is using the “cleared leaf epidermis” technique, which Leng co-developed, to analyze and measure the parameters of the specimens’ stomata — leaf pores important for gas exchange.
The scientists use those observations, along with various equations and isotope data from the plants, to estimate carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the ancient and modern atmosphere. Leng hopes this Arctic light research will enhance the accuracy of those calculations.
A biologist and paleobiologist (focusing on fossil plants), Leng has been on the Bryant faculty since 2009. She co-leads the Laboratory for Terrestrial Environments with faculty colleague Hong Yang, Ph.D., and teaches courses on such topics as biology, biodiversity, paleobotany, and biological and biomedical imaging.
For the GSA conference, Leng and Yang co-authored abstracts by undergraduate research assistants Joshua Turner and Taylor Vahey, both class of ’23, who also spoke about related investigations they’re conducting at Bryant. The professors helped guide them through developing, refining, and rehearsing their presentations.
“You could see their improvement, step by step, before the conference,” Leng recalls. “They were eager to give their talks because they already knew they were doing a good job.”