Scottish scientists develop 'see-through' soil

See through soil The transparent soil has the same ability to retain water, hold nutrients and sustain plant growth as the real thing

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Scientists at the James Hutton Institute and the University of Abertay Dundee have developed a special 'see-through' soil.

The transparent material was designed to help researchers study plant roots.

It took the team two years to find a compound that could match the properties of soil.

The new soil replicates the real thing in terms of water retention, ability to hold nutrients and capability for sustaining plant growth.

The development of the new compound has been described as a milestone in the study of the rhizosphere - the world of plant roots - and is expected to benefit research in numerous areas.

New discoveries

Lionel Dupuy, a theoretical biologist in the Ecological Sciences group at the James Hutton Institute, said it was an important step forward.

"With this new technique, scientists now have a way to observe soil processes, live and in situ," he said.

"This is exciting because there are so many things to discover in soil and we don't know yet what they are."

Start Quote

This is exciting because there are so many things to discover in soil and we don't know yet what they are”

End Quote Dr Lionel Dupuy Theoretical Biologist

It took Dr Dupuy and his colleagues two years of painstaking research to find a compound that could replicate soil chemistry, but eventually they found success with a synthetic composite known as Nafion, often used in power-generating fuel cells.

The artificial soil is not especially transparent on its own, but when saturated with a special water-based solution it becomes translucent.

Numerous benefits

Dr Dupuy said he expected to see the soil used in a wide range of research: "There are many different scientific disciplines that could benefit from this research. Transparent soils could be used to study the spread and transmission of soil borne pathogens.

"In crop genetics, transparent soils could be used to screen the root systems of a range of genotypes. This would help breed crops with more efficient root systems so that agriculture can rely less on fertilisers."

According to the team behind the see-through soil, future paths of research will focus on controlling a greater range of chemical and physical properties, so that transparent soils can be tailored to meet the needs of the disciplines of soil biology.

They also hope to lower the overall cost of the technique, so that it can be used by everyone and at a larger scale.

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