Soil in the Headlines

A recurring post on this blog, Soil in the Headlines, collects a few of the ways soil is featuring in our lives and in our news.

Figure from this PLOS ONE article (#2 on the headline list!). Researcher's caption: "Variation in B. mycoides colony morphology due to the presence of 5 mm glass beads during incubation on PCA: with bead still in place (top); with bead removed (below)." doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081549.g005

Figure from this PLOS ONE article (#2 on the headline list!). Researcher’s caption: “Variation in B. mycoides colony morphology due to the presence of 5 mm glass beads during incubation on PCA: with bead still in place (top); with bead removed (below).”

Japan tries to contain 133,000 tons of Fukushima’s radioactive soil

According to Japanese Daily Press, the Japanese government earmarked $970 million to store soil contaminated by Fukushima’s nuclear energy plant disaster. With the soil collected and money set aside to store it, the next question is, who wants to have a radioactive soil containment facility in their backyard? So far, no one is volunteering.

Soil microbe displays intriguing and potentially useful growth patterns

A recently published article in PLOS ONE describes a soil bacteria’s response to physical change in its surroundings. The bactieria, Bacillus mycoides, reorganized themselves into growth patterned around physical obstructions in their environment. Beyond the, “ooo, neat!” factor, this new knowledge of the bacteria may be useful for Continue reading


Soil in the headlines

The lastest dirt on your and my (or perhaps just my) favorite Earth element:

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

  • Rather than rotting on asphalt, Oregon’s roadkill meet a useful fate. The northwestern state composts animals smashed by cars into plant-ready nutrients. Turning dead deer into good soil (High Country News)
  • As land is developed, hydroponics move into urban Africa. A look at soil-less cultivation in West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire: The Miracle of Gardening Without Soil (All Africa)
  • The lauded rover samples Mars’ planetary skin and scientists excitedly search for evidence of organic compounds. Curiosity rover finds organic compounds, but are they from Mars? (NBC News)
  • Following a dry summer, Iowa’s soil is still dried out because the fall also failed to deliver moisture. This may set the state and its farmers up for a challenging spring, with soil trying to overcome a water debt. As winter nears, Iowa soil moisture low (Omaha World Herald)
  • Over-medicated livestock raise concerned eyebrows from those watching the residual antibiotics leave the farm and enter soil and water. One study suggests microorganisms break down antibiotics in the soil and that the population of antibiotic-eating microbes grows along with livestock operating scale. Antibiotic-eating bug unearthed in soil (American Society of Agronomy)

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

The Physiology of Garden Love

When the days begin to warm, the gardener bides her time. Once the soil is also warm and the frost promises to hold off until fall, a new growing season can begin. The gardener wasn’t idle while her soil was frozen and covered in snow. She pored over seed catalogs and diagrammed the most efficient use of space or most beautiful arrangement of ornamentals. When only a few weeks remain before soil fully thaws, the gardener peels open fresh packets of seeds and tucks them into potting soil where they’ll become seedlings before braving the outdoors.

Seeds have thick protective coats housing an embryo inside that will eventually sprout to become roots and foliage. That protective coat prevents water from entering or exiting the seed and also limits its interaction with gases in the air. For a seed to sprout, it must shed the seed coat.

Tomatoes, kale, eggplant, leeks, broccoli, basil. Tasty recipes emerge from the soil, unbending their first stem as though letting out a slow yawn. Slowly, leaves take on their unique shape, texture, and scent. The gardener has anticipated the scent of fresh basil since plucking the last withered herbs in October. A tomato’s velvet stem reminds her of the supple fruit it will yield in July.

Temperature is crucial in shedding a seed coat. It isn’t simply that seeds need to be warmed, many seeds require warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night. Holding a seed at a constantly warm temperature reduces germination rates and can lead to poor plant growth. Once a seed senses the proper temperature alternation, usually 5-10ºC difference between day and night, it sheds the seed coat and begins to interact with water, gases, and nutrients around it. Continue reading

Ode to Soil

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

I cannot lay claim to the beauty of Wendell Berry’s prose. But I can profess a similar concern for the important medium under our feet, our buildings and our crops. As it turns out, the world cares too. The United Nations recently formed the Global Soil Partnership (GSP). Broadly, its aim is to facilitate “healthy and productive soils for a food secure world.” For a basic overview of GSP, click here. The partnership was launched on September 7, 2011 and is, in part, an attempt to carry out the World Soil Charter, a UN document created in 1982. Continue reading

Why Soil Biodiversity May Save Your Life


The past couple days I’ve been a story-gathering, booth-mobbing Wisconsin Science Festival maniac. It’s time to retire #WiSciFest, though as promised, there will be a piece about the science behind Wisconsin foods (e.g. bratwursts, beer and ice cream) published in a few days, on

This post is about the diverse medium under our feet, soil, and why it is of growing importance to cancer research. Earlier this month, both BBC and Daily Mail reported on the work led by a researcher at the University of Nottingham about a soil bacteria. It turns out Clostridium sporogenes thrives in the oxygen-free interior of a tumor, making it the perfect messenger for a cancer-fighting drug.

 C. sporogenes image from BBC

Researchers genetically modified C. sporogenes to carry a cancer drug as well as an enzyme. The enzyme is a crucial addition because Continue reading