Every time we walk on the grass, it can be hard for us to believe the soil underneath us is made up of a world of it’s own!

Soil microorganisms exist in large numbers in the soil and is made up of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms and anthropods.

Did you know that a teaspoon of soil has more microbes in it than there are people on earth!!!?!

Megan Aoki is a PhD Candidate in the Environmental Life Sciences Graduate Studies Program at Trent University – and she has more than just a green thumb!


She’s studying one SOIL MICROBE called Dictyostelium discoideum, which is most commonly found in temperate deciduous forests.

Among all the microbes in the soil, this organism is very special.

It can exist as single cells when food is present or as a multi-cellular organism when food is depleted. Up to 100,000 single cells can come together to form this multi-cellular organism!!


Dictyostelium is an advantageous organism for studying the functions of cytokinins, which is a group of plant hormones. Cytokinins are found in many other organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and even humans.

Very little is known about the roles of these microbes outside of plants, so Megan’s research focuses on figuring out exactly what role they play. 

Specifically, Megan uses highly precise analytical machines (mass spectrometers) to identify cytokinins throughout all stages of the Dictyostelium life cycle (pictured below).

She designs specific experiments that focus on biological functions, such as growth or differentiation, to determine if cytokinin has any influence these functions.


So far, Megan has found that Dictyostelium produces 6 different types of cytokinin throughout all stages of its life cycle. These different cytokinins vary in their abundance throughout the different stages.

Her next steps are to pin-point what function each of these differently identified hormones has during the different stages of the Dictyostelium life cycle.


Studying the functions of these hormones is important because of its broad applications affecting agriculture and even medicine.

For example, in agriculture, cytokinins can be applied to soils to increase overall crop yield improvements. The molecule/hormone/cytokinin also improves plant growth under drought conditions.

With climate change on the rise, this hormone will become more important to help plants thrive through drought conditions!

In addition, in medicine, cytokinins have strong anti-cancer effects on cancer cells, and we know that cytokinins are present within human cells.


Beyond these specific examples about hormones, the knowledge gained from studying hormone interactions and their flow throughout their environment expands our understanding of molecules in general and how one molecule, such as cytokinins, can affect so many different organisms.

Thank you to Megan for your important research!

“Trent University has provided me with many amazing research opportunities as an undergraduate and now graduate student. As a student, staff and faculty have gone above and beyond to guide and support me throughout my career thus far – including endless opportunities for funding for my research and international travel to conferences, unique volunteer and outreach activities, and often just a kind ear to listen and offer advice. I cannot express enough gratitude to my supervisors, Dr. Neil Emery, Dr. Craig Brunetti, and Dr. Robert Huber for always being available and for their unwavering enthusiasm for my project. It is also an incredible opportunity to work in Canada’s most comprehensive mass spectrometry facility, the Trent Water Quality Centre, to allow me to study a molecule present and active at such low, and hard to detect levels.”