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See-through soil helps protect our food supply

Posting in Design

Scientists have designed a transparent soil that helps them study all the other little things usually obscured by dirt.

The new soil allows 3-D imaging of roots and the microbes that colonize them – collectively known as the rhizosphere -- helping scientists better combat soil pathogens that threaten the food supply.

The clear soil is made of a synthetic polymer called Nafion, which is often used in batteries and fuel cells because it can conduct electricity. Nafion particles are opaque and slightly reflective, but in the presence of a water-based solution, they become clear.

  1. To make clear mud, a team led by Lionel Dupuy from the James Hutton Institute in the U.K. soaked the Nafion in a mineral-rich medium, which the polymer absorbed.
  2. They planted seedlings of lettuce, maize, tobacco, barley, and alfalfa, which all thrived in their clear soil.
  3. Then they used the system to watch a fluorescently labeled strain of E. coli infect the roots of lettuce plants, giving them a clear view of how the microbe took hold.

"If we understand better the contamination route, then we can develop strategies to limit the transfer of E. coli to the food chain," Dupuy says. "We don't really understand how E. coli enters the food chain, particularly for fresh produce."

The work was published in PLOS ONE earlier this month.

[Via Discover Magazine]

Image from PLOS ONE

— By on September 25, 2012, 8:03 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure