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    • 2018-11-30 14:05:48
    • Article ID: 704721

    Tending the Soil

    • Credit: Shutterstock / Vlad Teodor

      How can scientists use the revolutionary advances in sensors, sensor networks and related technologies to advance the understanding of soil? Researchers from Argonne and The University of Chicago began to answer this question at a recent workshop.

    The world’s leading soil scientists met at Argonne recently to discuss the importance of what’s under our feet.

    Microbes are single-cell organisms that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Yet while relatively inconspicuous, they are the dominant life form on our planet.

    “Microbes shape how everything in this world survives,” said Jack Gilbert, faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center and group leader for microbial ecology at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. “If you don’t understand them, you won’t understand anything.”

    With funding support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and hosted by the University of Chicago, 22 leading researchers in the fields of soil science, microbiology, computational biology, sensors and nanotechnology recently gathered at the two-day Microbiome Soil Sensors Workshop in August to create a roadmap for measuring microbial activity in the soil.

    Why focus on soil? Soil supports ecosystems that are critical to life, and provides a habitat for billions of organisms.

    “All our food and water is dependent on soil,” explained Tijana Rajh, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow and deputy director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, at Argonne. “With alterations in the climate, how will that affect food and water? What is coming out of the soil? How is soil changing? These questions have global implications.”

    The workshop was part of a broader initiative that began with a meeting last year, also funded by the NSF and hosted by the University of Chicago, to identify overarching challenges in soil and plant science and subterranean sensing. In particular, scientists wanted to know how the revolutionary advances in sensors, sensor networks and related technologies could be used to advance the understanding of soil.

    According to Supratik Guha, director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials and professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, the key to developing better soil models is to generate better data. “There’s been an explosion in sensor networks, and science can benefit from that,” he said.

    At the workshop, broad consensus emerged concerning the need for context in taking measurements. In scientific terms, context refers to the need to produce more accurate measurements of soil microbial processes in order to improve understanding of how microbial interactions are shaped by the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil.

    The workshop participants also discussed the need to perform investigations of microbial communities at different scales, which include spatial, temporal and molecular. Creating data at multiple scales will require new models that mathematically integrate different data at nested levels, linking everything from a cell’s biochemistry to its influence on global processes.

    Finally, the group addressed the next stage of needed technological improvements. With technological advances having already enabled a new class of sensors specifically designed for subterranean settings, the need now is for an integrated, non-invasive system that seamlessly manages data from sample prep to detection to modeling and data analytics – and that adjusts in real time.

    Gilbert said the field is still in a nascent stage, and the workshop will help point the way forward. “We will develop a report with broad strokes of understanding about what needs to be measured and the technologies necessary to do so,” he said. “Then will come a strategy to deploy sensors and measure soils around the world.”  

    Among other new initiatives funded by the NSF, including 20 related national research projects, a team from Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology Division, in cooperation with ecologists, will deploy a sensor network at Fermilab next year for a field test.

    That Argonne and the University of Chicago are so deeply involved in this effort makes perfect sense to Rajh.

    “We bring a multi-disciplinary approach, have experts in the field, and have a history of teaming up on the multi-dimensional analysis of issues and the synthesis of solutions,” she said. “The challenges that are coming up in the future are food and water. And we need to prepare solutions for that.”

    Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that showcases the collaborative research efforts of UChicago and Argonne.

    About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
    The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://​sci​ence​.ener​gy​.gov/​b​e​s​/​s​u​f​/​u​s​e​r​-​f​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​/​n​a​n​o​s​c​a​l​e​-​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​-​r​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​-​c​e​n​ters/.

    Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

    The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.

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    Defining Quality Virus Data(sets)

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    The Biermann Battery Effect: Spontaneous Generation of Magnetic Fields and Their Severing

    The mechanism responsible for creating intense magnetic fields in laser-driven plasmas also helps tear the fields apart.


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    DOE approves technical plan and cost estimate to upgrade Argonne facility; Project will create X-rays that illuminate the atomic scale, in 3D

    The U.S. Department of Energy has approved the technical scope, cost estimate and plan of work for an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source, a major storage-ring X-ray source at Argonne.

    Costas Soukoulis elected to National Academy of Inventors

    Costas Soukoulis, Ames Laboratory senior scientist and Iowa State University Frances M. Craig Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor, has been named as a 2018 National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow.

    Biophysicist F. William Studier Elected Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

    F. William Studier, a Senior Biophysicist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry at Stony Brook University, has been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). He is among 148 renowned academic inventors being recognized by NAI for 2018.

    Blast to the future

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    Department of Energy to Provide $24 Million for Computer-Based Materials Design

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    Four Berkeley Lab Scientists Named AAAS Fellows

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    U.S. Department of Energy to Host Nationwide CyberForce Competition(tm) December 1

    Students from dozens of colleges/universities will participate in the U.S. Department of Energy's CyberForce Competition(tm) this weekend

    Seven ORNL researchers named 2019 INCITE award winners

    Seven researchers from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been chosen by the Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment, also known as INCITE, program to lead scientific investigations that require the nation's most powerful computers. The ORNL-based projects span a broad range of the scientific spectrum and represent the potential of high-performance computing in ensuring America's scientific competitiveness and energy security.


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    Ice Formed by Contact Freezing: Pressure Matters, Not Just Temperature

    Distortion of water droplet surface may increase the likelihood of the droplet freezing.

    Future Loss of Arctic Sea-Ice Cover Could Contribute to the Substantial Decrease in California's Rainfall

    A new modeling framework helps understand the consequences of future sea-ice loss in the Arctic.

    Drawn into a Whirlpool: A New Way to Stop Dangerous Fast Electrons in a Fusion Device

    A new phenomena forms vortices that trap particles, impeding electron avalanches that harm fusion reactors.

    During Droughts, Bacteria Help Sorghum Continue Growing

    Researchers discover how certain bacteria may safeguard plant growth during a drought, making way for strategies to improve crop productivity.

    The Biermann Battery Effect: Spontaneous Generation of Magnetic Fields and Their Severing

    The mechanism responsible for creating intense magnetic fields in laser-driven plasmas also helps tear the fields apart.

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    Advances in biochemistry and catalysis could lead to faster, greener nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

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    New method takes a snapshot every millisecond of groups of light-scattering particles, showing what happens during industrially relevant reactions.

    New Technology Consistently Identifies Proteins from a Dozen Cells

    A new platform melding microfluidics and robotics allows more in-depth bioanalysis with fewer cells than ever before.

    Optimal Foraging: How Soil Microbes Adapt to Nutrient Constraints

    How microbial communities adjust to nutrient-poor soils at the genomic and proteomic level gives scientists insights into land use.


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