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

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A little bit of background on my latest paper

In my latest paper, Extensive management promotes plant and microbial nitrogen retention in temperate grassland, published in PLoS ONE last month, we show that traditionally managed, species rich haymeadows lose less nitrogen with drainage water from their soils than more intensively managed grasslands. This is important, because nitrogen that leaches from the soil can pollute ground and surface water, reduce plant species diversity, and cause problems for human health if concentrations in drinking water are getting too high.

In this paper, we used both extensive field observations and a mechanistic glasshouse experiment to show that traditional haymeadows have lower nitrogen leaching because of more uptake of available nitrogen in plant roots and in microbes. Specifically, we found that a greater biomass of soil fungi increased microbial nitrogen uptake, and that this in turn increased the retention of nitrogen retention in soil.

These results confirm an ecological theory, namely that ecosystems with a more fungal-dominated microbial community are more efficient in their nitrogen cycling, and have thus lower nitrogen losses. This is not a novel theory at all – in fact, it is often assumed to be true, but it has never before been experimentally tested. To illustrate this, in this Science paper, it is said that ‘Because fungal-based soil food webs promote less leaky nutrient cycles that are more retentive of nutrients than do bacterial-based food webs…’ and subsequently, a paper by Coleman et al. from 1983  is cited. However, on further inspection, this appears to be a review paper, which by no means proves that this theory is correct. Moreover, it is not possible to adequately test this theory, since it is not possible to take the microbial community out of its environment, and thus it is impossible to test whether it is the composition of the microbial community that is responsible for lower nitrogen leaching, or its environment, for example the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Continue reading