Lindsay Erndwein
Lindsay Erndwein

In today's Plant Phenomics First Author Insights, we invited Lindsay Erndwein to share her insights as the first author of Comparative biomechanical characterization of maize brace roots within and between plants, currently on bioRxiv

Tell us about yourself a little bit, what's your current position, your education experience and how did you get into science.

I am a PhD candidate in Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Delaware. I work in Dr. Erin Sparks' lab. I earned my bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering at Penn State University with a focus on entomology. My fascination with the biomechanics of insect and plant-derived materials led me to pursue graduate research in plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware.
I have always wanted to pursue some type of life science. If you were to ask preschooler-me what I wanted to be when I grew up, you would enthusiastically hear, “entomologist!” I love insects and ultimately have them to thank for being where I am today. In high school, this love of insects morphed into a fascination with the materials that they produce, like silk and resilin, and how we can use them as a template for human technology. My career decision was solidified when I read the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” by Janine Benyus. I completed my undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering with foci in entomology and biomaterials at Penn State. After that, the threat of climate change became dire and I decided to use my training to tackle the challenge of improving agricultural production to feed the world. Leaping from entomology and engineering to plant science was daunting at first, but I soon realized that my background provided a unique interdisciplinary angle to the research.
For my entire life, my main hobby has been visual art. As a nature and hiking enthusiast, my art subjects are usually natural landscapes, insects, and other wildlife. I had considered pursuing art as a career in high school, but I derive so much joy and relaxation from it as a hobby thatI felt pursuing science and keeping art as a hobby was the right decision. This hobby has proven to be a strong benefit in the research realm. After illustrating figures and posters for my own research, I decided to open a small science illustration business to help other scientists in similar fields to visualize their work. Illustrating has truly helped me grow and network as a scientist and professional artist. To date, I am delighted to say that my illustrations have been featured in several publications (including this one). I plan to continue my art hobby and illustration business post-graduation. My long-term art goal is to write and publish a graphic novel that tackles important social issues of today.

What was the significant issue(s) in your paper? Why did you and your team care about it?

The research documented in this paper is extremely important because climate change is quickly worsening while the global population increases. We are currently facing the challenge of feeding a larger number of humans, with increasingly irregular and severe weather patterns that make it much more difficult to grow crops. Sustainability is also of concern, and we must minimize deforestation for additional agriculture, which would only add to the problem. Developing weather-resilient maize would maximize yield on the farmland we already have and strengthen our odds of feeding a growing world population and fighting against climate change.

What was the problem(s) to be solved and your proposed solution?

One consequence of irregular weather patterns is root lodging, when crops are uprooted or broken at the root, which causes significant yield loss worldwide. Recent studies in our lab and others suggest that brace roots, the aerial nodal roots of maize, impart resistance to root lodging. However, it is unknown what brace root phenotypes and mechanical properties influence this lodging resistance. This paper focused on defining the methods to characterize the mechanical properties of brace roots.
3-point bending is a common method used in the field of biomechanics for obtaining the mechanical properties of materials. The benefit of 3-point bending over other material testing methods is that rapid testing time allows the analysis of large sample sizes that may be limited in length. Thus, I set out to define methods for 3-point bending of brace roots samples in the maize inbred B73 line. I used this method to measure the structural stiffness (the slope of the force-displacement curve produced by an Instron mechanical testing machine) of maize brace roots. While this metric does not account for sample geometry, it does provide a method of comparison between brace root samples from different whorls and sections along each root. In preparing to re-submitting this research (on BiorXiv soon!), I have added sample geometry measurements by x-ray microCT, and compared the elastic modulus (stiffness corrected for geometry) as well as ultimate tensile load and break load between roots of multiple plant ages. From these results, I have found that the mechanical properties of brace roots are different for different nodes, but not for different ages or along the length of the root.

What was the contribution(s) of this study and who could benefit from it?

This research is aimed towards agricultural scientists, particularly geneticists and agronomists, to provide a viable protocol for characterizing the mechanical phenotypes of maize brace roots. My next goal is to apply this approach to different maize genotypes with varying contributions of brace roots to anchorage, and determine if brace root biomechanics influence anchorage. Discovering lodging resistant brace root traits will give insight into the cultivation of maize varieties that can resist root lodging.

Are there any interesting stories behind the paper?

As a plant scientist emerging from an interdisciplinary background, I am passionate about interdisciplinary research and this paper is an extension of the firmly held belief that the most innovative ideas for improving the world are manifested by scientists cooperating across disciplines. This research would not have been possible without the skilled insights of my advisor Erin Sparks, in addition to Megan Killian, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and Elahe Ganji, PhD student in mechanical engineering.


Erndwein, L., Ganji, E., Killian, M. L., & Sparks, E. E. (2019). Comparative biomechanical characterization of maize brace roots within and between plants. bioRxiv, 547794. doi: