Dr. Scharf studies how bacteria sense and move towards plants in the soil; particularly, how Rhizobia locate alfalfa plants.
Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown plant in the U.S., and a major food component for cattle. Rhizobia are often found living with the healthiest of alfalfa plants in a beneficial symbiosis. Dr. Scharf is interested in how these bacteria, which originate in soil, sense alfalfa and swim from the soil to the plant's roots. Using genetic and biotechnological approaches, she attempts to pinpoint the odor on the plant that could potentially attract the bacteria. Her hypothesis-- that the bacteria use sense of smell to locate the plants, and that the bacteria with the strongest senses of smell are most successful-- could potentially lead to using biotechnology approaches to create bacteria with 'super-noses,' which would ultimately strengthen the efficiency of the symbiosis, and the health of the alfalfa plant.