Look deeper into the ground


Images courtesy of the University of Idaho

Rodrigo Vargas of the University of Delaware is co-principal investigator on a new $ 18.9 million National Science Foundation grant to study soils at depths greater than anywhere else in the world. The grant is part of an NSF investment in medium research infrastructure for the construction of a new Deep Soil Ecotron facility at the University of Idaho.

“This facility will allow us to look deeper into the ground with the most modern instruments under experimental conditions,” said Vargas, professor of ecosystem ecology and environmental change. “The Deep Soil Ecotron will provide information on how organisms and ecosystem processes in deep soils react to global environmental changes.”

Vargas and his team will carry out experiments on soil columns up to three meters deep. To study soils, scientists now often dig pits that destroy the soil systems when they are exposed. Also, most of the research only covers the top 30 centimeters (about a foot) of the soil.

“So basically we’re scratching the surface of the ground,” added Vargas. “There’s a lot to learn when you go deeper.”

Michael Strickland, Associate Professor of Microbial Ecology at the University of Idaho, is involved in the project.

“Deep soils are likely one of the last research frontiers,” Strickland said. “Soils are naturally important to life on the planet, from supporting plants to processes like carbon and nutrient cycling, but a lot of research has focused on the surface. This facility would enable us to better understand these processes in depth. ”

When completed, the Deep Soil Ecotron will contain up to 24 “eco-units” – giant pillars that will be used to examine soil cores containing aboveground plants and underground organisms such as insects and microbes. Researchers will be able to control a number of variables, including temperature, water, and exposure to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The ecotron will be housed in the JW Martin Laboratory in Idaho, with renovations expected to begin in spring 2022.

There are only 13 institutions of this type in the world, most of them in Europe. Nobody goes into the depths of this ecotron, which gives scientists a better way to monitor and manipulate the eco-units for controlled experiments.

Co-lead researcher Zachary Kayler, who conducted experiments at Ecotron in France, said the University of Idaho’s Deep Soil Ecotron will be a resource not just for the region but for scientists across the country and around the world.

“This facility will represent a major advancement in our understanding of soil and terrestrial ecosystems – at the space and deep-sea exploration level for similar investments,” said Kayler, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Idaho. “We are facing times of uncertainty. We do not know where the climate trends are going and we cannot prepare ourselves with the knowledge of the past. This facility will enable us to conduct experiments that will help us plan for these future environmental conditions. “

Studies conducted at the ecotron will improve understanding of how deep-lying soil organisms respond to unprecedented conditions, how soil systems respond to agricultural practices, and how well they store carbon. The eco units are also used to develop sensors for monitoring deep soils in the field.

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