I Can't Believe This Is See-Through!
Oct 23, 2012
It’s challenging to study precisely how plant roots grow – they are obscured by the soil, after all. So Scottish scientists came up with an innovative solution by developing see-through soil.
Researchers at Abertay University in Scotland spent two years creating a compound that could replicate soil. The result was a synthetic composite called Nafion. It is not especially transparent by itself, but it becomes translucent when saturated with a special water-based solution. More importantly, it resembles real soil in its ability to retain water, hold nutrients and sustain plant growth.
The researchers have already imagined multiple uses for the composite.
"There are many different scientific disciplines that could benefit from this research," says Dr. Lionel Dupuy, a theoretical biologist in the Ecological Sciences group at the James Hutton Institute. "Transparent soils could be used to study the spread and transmission of soil-borne pathogens. In crop genetics, transparent soils could be used to screen the root systems of a range of genotypes. This would help breed crops with more efficient root systems so that agriculture can rely less on fertilizers."
The team is now working on an expanded range of chemical and physical properties. They also hope to lower the overall cost of the technique to allow large-scale use.
More visible roots means more accurate root research.