The phrase "clear as mud" has taken on new meaning with the development of see-through soil. The new stuff is really a synthetic composite that replicates soil chemistry, but still allows scientists a chance to view and better understand root systems.
After two years of research, scientists have discovered an unlikely choice in synthetic composite called Nafion, used in power generating fuel cells. In its natural state Nafion is opaque and crystalline, but, when saturated with water that's filled with nutrients, it becomes a translucent sort of mud.
It has the same ability to act as a substrate similar to soil, in terms of its water and nutrient retentive qualities that allow a plant to thrive.
Aside from the coolness factor of being able to see the roots, scientists have a reason for experimenting with this see-through stuff. Dr. Lionel Dupuy from the James Hutton Institute in the U.K. has led the research and was quoted in a release:
"With this new technique, scientists now have a way to observe soil processes, live and in situ. This is exciting because there are so many things to discover in soil and we don't know yet what they are."
The see-through soil will be used in many applications, such as understanding how the rhizosphere (the roots and the microbes that piggyback off them) of certain plants interact with other species, and in crop genetics a clear soil could allow scientists to observe the qualities of the strongest root systems to help breed more hardy crops, and therefore more produce more efficient yields.
One experiment conducted by the team involved using a fluorescently labeled strain of E. coli as it infected the roots of lettuce plants. With E. coli outbreaks on the rise and sometimes leading in death, having a clear view of how the microbe behaved. Dupuy noted that if scientists can better understand how E. coli contaminates plants via the root system, the better armed we'll be to understand how the dangerous microbe flourishes and gets into the food chain.
Moving forward, Dupuy's team will also focus on further study of the composite itself. By understanding more about these synthetic soils and how they behave they hope to make the process cheaper and more widely available.
Who knows? As we eye long term space travel and establishing moon bases, a synthetic soil may be a potentially valuable growing medium.
Details about the research were published in PLOS ONE in September.