Soil boring? My take on the image problem of soil science.

I am passionate about soil, especially about soil biodiversity and how soil organisms and plants interact and control C and N cycling. I have studied soils since I started my undergraduate in 1996, and I have witnessed a complete turnaround when it comes to interest in soil biodiversity and the functions it performs. When I started my PhD, no one was interested in soil organisms and how they regulate crucial ecosystem processes that also happen to be central to sustainable agriculture. Now, everyone is interested – from farmers, to policy makers, to fellow ecologists.

Well, I say everyone, but that is clearly not the case. Soil is still remarkably unsexy. I will illustrate this with a little anecdote.

Last Friday, I met the third year Zoology student who had been assigned to do a final year Science Media Education Project with me. As we walked up the stairs, I asked her what her background was, and she replied and said: “….. and you study soils, right?” in a slightly too upbeat manner. We went to my office, and after finding out that she’d like to interact with primary school children, I suggested organizing a book launch family activity or classroom activity linked to a children’s book about an earthworm that I provided scientific advice for. I explained to her what the book is about (it is about a little worm with low self-esteem, who goes on a journey and meets lots of impressive animals, but eventually finds out that worms are crucial for soil health and plant growth), that the authors are based in Manchester, and that it will come out in February. I saw her face light up as she got increasingly enthusiastic, and I said: “You probably thought, oh no, I have to do a project on soil” to which she replied that she had indeed been a bit worried. When she left, I felt happy that I had been able to excite her about the project, but sad that she had been worried about studying soil.

Sadly, I can’t really blame her.

I, too, often feel deeply bored when I read about soil.

Why is this? Continue reading

Blood, sweat, and tears: the story behind the paper

I have already hinted at it in a previous post, and I have been tweeting a lot about it during the past couple of days: our paper ‘Soil food web properties explain ecosystem services across European land use systems’ is now online on the PNAS website! The paper is about, well, soil food webs, and how important they are for ecosystem services. Of course, I already knew that, as did many others, and relationships between groups of soil organisms and ecosystem processes have been shown before. But in this paper, we show that there are strong and consistent relationships between soil food web properties and processes of carbon and nitrogen cycling on a European scale!

Anyway, this is all pretty exciting, but I don’t want to write about the actual content and message of the paper here. No. Because when you see a paper like this, nice and shiny and with a blue PNAS logo on the side, with slick figures, a list of references, online supplementary information, and a small box detailing the contribution of each author, oh, and not to forget the acknowledgements thanking the funder, the landowners, and the people who helped in the lab, you don’t think about all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting together such a paper. And blood, sweat, and tears went in it. Continue reading

Drought belowground

There is a heat wave in the UK, and at least in the north, where I live, not a single drop of rain has fallen for at least three weeks. I quite like it, especially since last year was basically one long, wet, windy autumn and I was craving for a real summer. But, with temperatures this high, and with this little rainfall, many plants are starting to look a bit poorly. Grass is turning brown, and forbs are hanging their heads. Especially in the north of England, where normally everything is lush and green around this time, this is an unusual sight.

I know this all too well, because I am running a drought experiment – our drought pots have been tortured to the max and we wouldn’t have needed the sturdy roofs, while we had to water our control pots.

Does this look dire? Then take a look at what's happening belowground! Pots from my on-going drought experiment.

Does this look dire? Then take a look at what’s happening belowground! Pots from my on-going drought experiment.

So, plants are having a hard time, and I can imagine farmers are becoming worried. Because summer droughts are expected to increase in the UK, and when crops are stressed to their limit, this will lead to yield reductions. Modern agricultural crops have evolved to be adapted to high-resource, low risk environments, and have very different properties than their wild ancestors (read this great paper by García-Palacios et al.) – properties that are not much good for resisting drought conditions.

However, if you think that carnage is going on aboveground, then take a look belowground. Continue reading