soil science

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By Georgina Smith, Rhys Bolt, Robyn Plummer, Alan Monk and Eleanor Wright

students

A group of five second year students have been set the task of investigating how people use fertilisers and pesticides in their gardens and allotments and the impact on soil fertility as part of a 20 credit real-life environmental consultancy module on the BSc Environmental Science and Geography degree programmes. This study will focus on the Earley area, which is located within the Loddon catchment.

How will this research help the wider community? This is an ideal opportunity for residents to get their soil tested for free. Phosphorus, nitrogen, pH and organic matter will be measured.  All factors are important for plant growth, and therefore knowing these soil properties will help residents understand their current soil fertility to inform their choices about the amount of fertiliser to apply.

How will students use the data?  The data obtained from the door-to-door survey and the analysis of soil samples will provide the students with information to produce quality analysis of soil in gardens in Earley and further information on the level of fertiliser and pesticide use.  Soil fertility will be compared to soil samples collected from the University of Reading farm at Arborfield to see if gardens are more or less fertile than farmers’ fields used for crop production. It is important to stress that all data will be anonymised and presented as aggregated values for the area, as strict data protection procedures in place.

“This is an exciting project as we know almost nothing about soil fertility, fertiliser and pesticide use within people’s gardens and allotments” says Dr Joanna Clark, module convenor.  Many urban areas were not mapped when the Soil Survey produced soil maps for England and Wales. Gardens and allotments are not subject to the same regulatory controls as agricultural land.

The project is being run in collaboration with Hampshire and Isle of Weight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) who host the Loddon Catchment Partnership (LCP).  The LCP is part of a national network of Catchment Partnerships established to enable communities to take action to improve the quality of their water environment.

Please get in touch with Dr Joanna Clark (j.m.clark@reading.ac.uk) if you live in Earley and would like to take part in the survey.

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studentsBSc Environmental Science students Valentin Meneveau and Jennifer Lam present posters at the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) conference.

Jennifer’s research worked to improve the resistance and resilience of soils to extreme flooding events. She discovered that by diversifying farming practices, soils could resist disturbances to a greater extent.

Valentin’s project investigated the genetic basis for arsenic accumulation in the leaves of vegetable plants and was able to identify specific genes that allowed the vegetables to resist elevated levels of arsenic in the soil.

UROP provides exciting opportunities for undergraduates to work with staff on research projects across the University, contributing directly to the creation of knowledge, building new skills and strengthening the link between teaching and research.

The UROP scheme gives undergraduate students in the middle years of their degree* the chance to work on real research projects alongside academic researchers, contributing to the creation of knowledge. UROP placements last six weeks over the summer break and are paid- students receive a bursary of £1,320.

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Congratulations to the winners of the annual Soil Research Centre Photo Competition! We had a fantastic range of entries this year, which you can view at the album here.

First Prize

Jackie Stroud: Earthworm in action!  Earthworm feeding at night on surface organic matter (crop residues)

First Prize - Jackie Stroud

First Prize – Jackie Stroud

Second Prize

Ian Davenport: In arid and semi-arid regions, cyanobacteria use light and water to grow filaments that bind soil particles together, forming a crust that helps to prevent erosion.  Photo from Diamantina, Australia.

Ian Davenport, Second Prize

Ian Davenport, Second Prize

Highly Commended

Rob Jackson: Banana plantation: Reading, Medellin and UMass Dartmouth student team sampling soil along a transect in a Colombian banana plantation to discover novel biocontrol bacteria

Rob Jackson, Highly Commended

Rob Jackson, Highly Commended

Erika Degani: Sampling earthworms at UoR Sonning Farm as part of a PhD project assessing the relationships between crop rotations, biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services

Erika Degani, Highly Commended

Erika Degani, Highly Commended

Well done to all!

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Sarah Duddigan poses with tea bags-smThis week University of Reading and Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) PhD student Sarah Duddigan has been filmed for an Austrian children’s science TV programme, talking about her contribution to a decomposition rate citizen science project, known as the Tea Bag Index – UK.

The Tea Bag Index is a novel method to measure decomposition rate in soil. Decomposition (the breakdown of organic material into its smaller constituents) is an important process for the release of nutrients into soil for plants to use. Therefore gaining a better understanding of decomposition in soil will be of great value to gardeners in the UK. The method is simple, UK participants are recruited through the RHS and posted some tea bags to bury in their garden. After three months they dig them up and send them back, along with a soil sample.

Decomposition of organic matter (i.e. dead plant and animal remains) in soils is an important process in any ecosystem.

Decomposer microorganisms feed on the organic matter and break it down into its simplest components. As organic matter is decomposed, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients are released. Meaning that, any excess nutrients are released and are available for plants to use to grow.

Maintaining a healthy and vibrant garden is the aspiration of most gardeners and healthy fertile soil is a key component of this. Therefore, a better understanding of decomposition rates in garden soils will be of great value to gardeners across the UK.

While having an active microbial population decomposing organic matter is important for soil health, they are not without their problems. While organic matter is decomposing, it releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A fast decay leads to more CO2 in the atmosphere and slow decay could lead to a greater proportion of carbon remaining in the soil. It is estimated that soils store a gigantic 2,300 billion tons of carbon worldwide; triple the amount than all the worlds plants. Therefore in order to gain a better understanding of global CO2 emissions from soils it is vital to know more about the rate of decomposition.

The data from the UK therefore can also be combined with data being collected across Europe (or across the world in fact) in order to gain a better understanding on the role of decomposition in global carbon emissions and the contribution to climate change.

This seems to be a contradiction, on the one hand decomposition is good for plant health, but on the other has the potential to contribute to climate change. This is why projects such as this, which aim to gain a better understanding of decomposition rates in soil, are so important.

For more information, and updates on the progress of the project, see the links below:
Website: www.teabagindexuk.wordpress.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/teabagindexuk

Twitter: www.twitter.com/TeaBagIndexUK

@TeaBagIndexUK

#TeaBagIndexUK

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BSSSdissprizeCongratulations to Rosie Everett, winner of the 2015 BSc BSSS Dissertation Prize for her project on ‘Reconstructing Late Würm Late-Glacial and Early Holocene environmental changes in the Corsican uplands and evaluating the response of human groups to climate change and vegetation succession’ supervised by Dr Nick Branch (presenting the award).

 

Rosie’s project used the sedimentary records from Lake Creno, Corsica as an archive for past environmental conditions.  She analysed the pollen stored in the sediment to reconstruct past conditions to see if there was a relationship between past climate during ate Wurm Late Glacial and Early Holocene period and human settlement on Corsica.

 

She has been putting her paleoecological skills to practice as a Forensic Researcher Intern at the James Hutton Institute, looking at rates of recovery of diatoms, taken from lake samples from pig liver tissues, as an analogue from human drowning cases.  Rosie graduated this summer with a BA in Archaelogy, and is currently working with a forensics company, assisting with field work.  Her ambition is to build on this experience and skills base to pursue post-graduate study in ecology.

 

We’re extremely proud of Rosie and all our students’ fantastic achievements this year.  Competition for the prize this year was tough with many strong entries.  We wish everyone from the Class of 2015 the best of luck with their future endeavours.

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On Tuesday 10th February Dr. Tom Sizmur met with growers in Essex and Hertfordshire at Manuden Village Community Centre to talk about how soil structure and crop yield can be improved by adding organic matter to soils and boosting earthworm populations.

Read the full story on the Soil Research Centre blog here.

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