Guest Blog: Soil is Life!

This week we have a guest blogger! Clare Humphries, who has been an avid supporter of our blog since its pre-conception, and is the Agrifood Information Specialist at Cranfield University, offers us an insight into her day at Rothamsted’s latest public engagement day, Soil is Life!

Clare explains:

I’ve obviously been hanging out with soil scientists a little too often recently as I jumped at the prospect of spending a Sunday afternoon at Rothamsted Research’s ‘Soil is Life!’ exhibition. This is just one part of their celebration for the International Year of Soils, 2015. From the outset, the day sounded like a great opportunity to find out about the soil research happening just a short drive down the M1 from Cranfield.

It didn’t disappoint! There were lots of fun and engaging activities being enjoyed by the budding soil scientists in attendance (and their parents!). The science started straight off, and I was into the world of soil biology, where we were shown a video of the soil alive with microscopic creepies and crawlies. A poster explained the different trophic groups (basically who eats who) and how deep they live in the soil – from chemoautotrophic bacteria to earthworms. The biological diversity of soil under different land uses was clearly demonstrated with a display of lights, different ones lighting up to indicate the biodiversity when you pressed different buttons. This ranged from the almost lifeless lack of colour in contaminated land to the beautiful multi-coloured display of a tropical rainforest.

Then onto the chemical and physical properties of soil. I got my (gloved) hands dirty by sieving some soil that I’d brought from home in the pop-up soil lab. However, a pH reading of 8.38 seemed slightly unusual judging by the scientists’ reaction! One of my favourite exhibits was the display of soil monoliths (feature photo), highlighting the variety in colour and composition of UK soils – did you know that there are over 700 soil types in the UK! It was quite amusing to discover that the monoliths were on loan from Cranfield University for the day!

I also took the opportunity to go on the two tours to other parts of the site including the Bioimaging Facility. Here, as throughout the day, staff were on hand to show us round, to explain the different applications of the light and electron microscopes as well as answering any questions.


Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)

The other tour (and probably the highlight of the day) was to the Sample Archive. The archive contains more than 300,000 samples of crops, soils, fertilisers and manures, dating back to 1844. Endless rows of shelving full of carefully catalogued materials is not an unusual sight to someone who works in a university library, but the items themselves were rather different to the textbooks we have at Cranfield. Glass bottles and jars of different sizes, neat cardboard boxes and a variety of metal tins re-purposed when glass bottles were scarce (look out for the coffee, liver salts and milk powder containers in the photo). All beautifully labelled (although with a numbered shelving system that seemed even more complicated than UDC) and some from as far away as Woburn and Bermuda!

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We then headed back to the conference centre for a series of flash talks from 4 PhD students who were challenged with talking for 5 minutes on their chosen topic without slides, using only props. The first two talks were about soil fungus, named ‘take all’ given by Joseph Moughan a Plant Doctor in training, and Sarah-Jane Osborne who explained ‘the battle beneath our feet’. They were followed by ‘below ground detective’ Frances Cheesman on the role of Bradyrhizobium in the soil microbial community and finally Katrina Pears discussed the three-leaved clover – ‘more than just a weed!’. As Adelia de Paula tweeted, inspiring talks which the kids (and the rest of us) loved.


There was just enough time to hitch a ride on the tractor-trailer to visit the Broadbalk Wheat Experiment fields. This is the classic experiment at Rothamsted, which is the longest running agricultural research station in the world. Broadbalk was first sown to winter wheat in autumn 1843 and scientists have been observing the effects of adding farmyard manure and a variety of other fertilizers on the crop yield and soil properties ever since.  As well as the original experiment designed over 170 years ago, there were also examples of some more modern experimental approaches used by Rothamsted researchers. For example, the octocopter drones and portable gas analysers measuring the emission of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and other gases from the soil in real-time.


Broadbalk wheat experiment plots

Sadly I didn’t get the chance this time to find out about kriging and geostatistics but it was a great day indeed. A big thank you to all the people involved and I look forward to my next visit!

Author: Clare Humphries (@CranfieldClare)