University of Idaho Awarded $18.9M For Deep Soil Research Facility
Marisa Lloyd

University of Idaho Awarded $18.9M For Deep Soil Research Facility

University of Idaho

MOSCOW —  A facility designed to study soil at depths greater than anywhere else in the world will be built by University of Idaho researchers with support from an $18.9 million National Science Foundation grant.

The Deep Soil Ecotron will enable scientists to conduct experiments on columns of soil up to three meters deep (about 10 feet). Currently, to study soils, scientists often dig pits, which destroys the soil systems as they are uncovered. Also, most research involves just the top 30 centimeters (roughly one foot) of soil. There is a lot to be learned by going deeper, said Michael Strickland, the project’s lead principal investigator. 

“Deep soils are probably one of the last research frontiers,” said Strickland, a U of I associate professor of microbial ecology. “Soils are inherently important to live on the planet from supporting plants to driving processes like carbon and nutrient cycling, but a lot of research has been focused on the surface. This facility would enable us to better understand those processes in depth.”

When complete, the Deep Soil Ecotron will contain as many as 24 “eco-units,” essentially huge columns used to study soil cores complete with above-ground plants and below-ground organisms such as insects and microbes. Researchers will be able to control a range of variables including temperature, water, and exposure to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Ecotron will be housed at the university’s JW Martin Laboratory with renovation expected to start in spring 2022.

Only 13 facilities of this type exist in the world with most located in Europe. None go to the soil depths planned at U of I, and the new Ecotron will give scientists greater ability to monitor and manipulate the eco-units for controlled experiments.

Co-lead investigator Zachary Kayler, who has conducted experiments at the Ecotron in France, said the U of I Deep Soil Ecotron will be a resource not only for the region but for scientists across the country and around the world.

“This facility will represent a huge leap forward in our understanding of soil and terrestrial ecosystems -- on the level of space and deep ocean exploration after similar investments,” said Kayler, a U of I assistant professor of biogeochemistry. “We're facing times of uncertainty. We don’t know where the climate trends are going and can’t prepare using past knowledge. This facility will allow us to perform experiments which will help us plan for those future environmental conditions.”

Studies conducted at the Ecotron will improve understanding of how deep soil organisms react to unprecedented conditions, how soil systems respond to agricultural practices and how well they sequester carbon. A range of soils can be studied from the loess found on the Palouse region in Idaho and Washington to soils brought in from the tropics. The eco-units will also be used to develop sensors to monitor deep soils in the field.

This facility puts Idaho on the map as a global leader in deep soil research, said Chris Nomura, U of I Vice President for Research and Economic Development.

“The Deep Soil Ecotron is truly a unique asset in the world that will enable researchers to design new types of experiments and ask questions that were previously impossible to examine,” said Nomura. 

While housed at U of I, the Deep Soil Ecotron has multiple collaborators including scientists at the University of Colorado, University of Delaware, University of Hawaii, North Dakota State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the University of Wyoming.  Most of these institutions are part of EPSCoR, NSF’s program to stimulate competitive research in historically underfunded states. One of the project goals is to create a national network of scientists, starting with these partners, who will conduct experiments at the new facility.

U of I researchers are planning workshops for interested scientists so that experiments can begin as soon as the facility is built. They will also begin recruiting graduate students for a project management training program that aims to teach future scientists how to construct and run research facilities like this one.

 

This project was funded to the Regents of the University of Idaho by the National Science Foundation under award 2131837. The total project funding released is $75,000, of which 100% is the federal share. The anticipated funding amount for FFY21 is $8,500,000 and the anticipated total funding authorization is $18,950,955.

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