Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are there really over 2000 soil scientists in the world?

Can you imagine over 2000 soil scientists in one place at one time? What will they all be talking about? Sounds like a nerd fest to me! (of the dirty kind)

Next week (1st - 6th August) is the 19th World Congress of Soil Science, being held in Brisbane, Australia. Soil scientists from around the world are converging on Brisvegas for the every 4-year congress, to swap soil science and information. The last time the congress was held in Australia was in 1968 in Brisbane.  Soil science and ideas have changed considerably in the last 40 years, with focus and slogan being 'soil solutions for a changing world'. Some topics include: soil and climate change, soil carbon sequestration, soil water interface, attracting (young) people into soil careers, soil in urban environments and sustainable agriculture.

Where do the 2000 soil scientists come from? Everywhere! My school, The Fenner School @ANU, has 15+ soil scientists attending the congress. Although we are a relatively small contingent compared to other institutions, we have a huge diversity of papers. I am presenting some findings on adapting methods for extracting water soluble phosphorous in saline sodic soils. My co-PhD'ers are presenting some of their research on changes in soil chemistry with stream restoration and changes in soil carbon under farming pasture and tree lots in South Eastern Australia. The contingent are also presenting papers on nutrients in pasture cropping, soil carbon methods, public engagement of soil science and alpine soils. In addition, 3 of us will be representing the NSW/ACT Branch of the Australian Society of Soil Science Inc. It looks to be a very busy and exciting week of soil!

Love to hear if any of you (fellow soil scientists, bloggers and readers) are coming to the congress. Would be great to catch up and meet you all.

See you at the Congress!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fanciful Fungi #5: More Fungi than you can poke a stick at!

Old burnt logs have more life then you would think. A June walk to the top of Camelback in Tidbinbilla Park let us capture some of the most beautiful fungi attacking dead, burnt wood seasoned from the January 2003 fires. The damaged and rotting timber is the perfect home for detritus loving fungi! So much rotting food :D

Oh! Basidiomycota, how I love you so. You can be found in hard ground, or hanging out of logs <3 These fungi were only about 30-40mm wide and hanging on the end of this burnt stick in a wet valley at the base of the walk. They are likely to be Woody Pore-Fungi or Leathery Shelf-Fungi. I didn't want to disturb them too much, so didn't have a look underneath to see if they had pores. This would have helped in the identification. However, my book was unable to help me for such small sized wood-fungi.

This fungi was found just across from the one above! It may even be on the same burnt tree.  It is a Basidiomycota, and most likely as species of Stereum. Their Curved shapes, with defining rainbow colours of chocolate, caramel and cream are often found on dead wood.

Jelly fungi have to be my favourite. These guys were only as big as your pinky-finger nail! They were everywhere on the walk, attacking all types of dead timber. Heterotextus peziziformis is their rad name. They are almost translucent, and I wish they were larger so I could try looking through them at other objects.

Clumping mushrooms in the scar of a burnt tree, surrounded by some sort of white leathery shelf-fungi. I was unable to identify the white colony fungi, but I believe the mushrooms are Collybia eucalyptorum. They have cream-colour gills and reddish brown stems, and like to hang our on mature eucalypts in moist forests.

Tiny tiny tiny fungi! Again, another type of shelf-fungi or woody pore fungi which my book was unable to help me identify. They were a 85% cocoa chocolate brown colour, and clumped up to form tiny colonies.  Another unidentified species that likes rotting wood as a home.

Looking for some new fungi friends? Have a look at this log. The last 4-fungi were all found on the same log. In fact, they weren't the only fungi on the log. I had to stop photographing as I counted the number of species. There were about 20-30 species on one log alone! Plenty of new friends if you are a fungus. The top-left photo are of more Collybia eucalyptorum. C. eucalyptorum like hanging with feathery-grey toadstools (top-right), some puff-ball fungi barely 10mm in size (bottom left) and woody pore fungi probably related to Australohydnum dregeanum (bottom right).

These rotting-timber lovers are only some of the fungi found in the moist forests @ Tidbinbilla. I found many more species in rotting mulch and litter from trees. Some species were even growing out from road-pavement and holding onto dear life on the batters at the edge of the road. However, charred decomposing wood is definitely the place to be if you are a fungi!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Terra-forming: The Science of Extra-Terrestrial Land Rehabilitation

Instead of thinking about useful PhD things when I was sieving and grinding my (5th sampling round) soil, I spent the whole time daydreaming about the possibility of terra-forming on land other than Earth. I realised given the knowledge we have now, that it is actually possible.

Really, I blame Dr Who for this one. I was watching a special episode, where David Tennant as The Doctor goes to Mars. He finds the first humans on Mars, including a biodome. The biodome included food-producing and other plants. For pest control, they had also introduced animals, including birds.

And then, I saw an job ad for a Lunar Soil Geologist. They are to head a team looking at soil on the Moon. Of course, I could do nothing except think about extraterrestrial soils, terra-forming and if I ever was luck enough to get a job there, if I got to go to the Moon. Zoe said it was unlikely. She had heard an interview with a lady who had dedicated her life to water on the Moon, and she had never been. How am I supposed to classify soils properly if I can't look at them in-situ?!?! Geesh!

Later that day, I was waiting for an appointment when I picked up a copy of Cosmos. It was the special edition on SETI with Frank Drake (is he a relative?).  Someone/thing (?!?) was trying to tell me to think about the realities of terra-forming. As I gave the coincidences some thought, I realised that terra-forming on Mars and the Moon may not be just science fiction. In fact, current science can help guide us towards extraterrestrial gardens, and even my own research can answer some of the current questions regarding terra-forming. 

What is Terra-Forming?
Terra-forming is a word use by many science fiction writers to explain a process of making an extraterrestrial world habitable for humans. Terra-forming uses a planets resources, such as frozen water and ground, and manipulates it through ecology and technology to make it habitable for humans and other species. A famous fiction series on terra-forming includes Red, Green and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Once upon a time, I would have left the idea of growing plants on Mars to science fiction. Now I am not so sure. Is it possible to grow plants on Mars or the Moon?

What do we need to live? 

Before we think of extraterrestrial living, lets think of our own life on Earth. What things does Earth provide us so we can live
* Atmosphere with oxygen
* Sun
* Water
* Food
When we think about terra-forming another planet, we know we need to consider these things to make it habitable for human life.

How can we use current science? 
Many planets we have identified, like Mars, are too far from the sun to have the same lifeforms we have on Earth. Distance from the sun is crucial for water and for photosynthesis: both keys to life.  Water needs to be in liquid and vapor form for biology to utilise. Distance from the sun regulates temperature and light, and thus affects the growth of plants.

Both the Moon and Mars are known to have frozen water (NASA Mars Program and National Geographic NASA Moon Crashes).

Food (Plants)
Regolith materials are weathered rocks, which aid in the formation of soils. You can find weathered rock on Mars and the Moon. Regolith can be used to grow plants and produce food. Soil amelioration, or adding nutrients and chemicals to the soil, is often undertaken on our own soils to help plants grow. Ameliorants can be also be used on Lunar and Martian materials to aid in plant growth.

The interaction between plants, animals, water, land and distance from the sun regulate the atmosphere. We need an atmosphere that contains Oxygen for us to survive. Recreating similar conditions to what we have on Earth needs to consider these things.  

How do we grow food then? 
On the Moon and Mars we have water, regolith materials, but limited light and an atmosphere not like our own. Suppose we want to build a permanent space station, and they must be able to grow their own food. What can we do to make things grow?

Just like in Dr Who, we can consider artificially constructed domes. This includes things like the Montreal Biodome. The biodome manipulates the environment, including temperature, atmosphere and light, along with plants, animals and even microbiology and fungi to create its own ecosystem! Using domes in an extraterrestrial environment is called paraterraforming. Domes are kind of cheating the whole terra-forming thing. Domes artificially create an ecology, whereas real terra-forming implies the construction of an ecosystem which will make an atmosphere suitable for human life. Is there a way we can do it without using a fake-environment?

What do you mean terra-forming is related to your research...

Pretend we are on Mars. We have frozen water, different atmosphere to our own, regolith materials (Martian Soil), and that we are able to create a better light source for the planet (you know, those big mirrors you see in movies...).  We have everything we need to undertake terra-forming via land rehabilitation.

We can use principles of land rehabilitation when we consider terra-forming. Some of my recent research (Drake et al 2010) and principles founded by David Tongway, discuss that all ecosystems have 4-key features: Landscape, Functions, Structure and Composition. These four features are interlinked to form an ecosystem. Conversely, when you don't have an ecosystem, you can use these 4-features to help build an ecosystem. An example is in mine rehabilitation. A mined landscape is pretty similar to the moon; both have very little life, and are often bare regolith/rock materials. We have to build an ecosystem where there is nothing, and these 4-features help guide processes to engineer an ecosystem.

We start with finding a stable landscape, and then helping functions. This includes using ameliorants or microbiology (you know, they found extinct life on Mars! Perhaps they are dormant?) to recreate water and nutrient cycling. Once we have good water and nutrient cycling, we can then add plants, animals and habitat features. Together, the 4-features form a natural ecosystem which is adapted to the conditions on the mine site/planet, is able to look after itself and is resilient to changes. So, if we consider land rehabilitation principles, we can potentially build an ecosystem on another planet!

Is terra-forming complete? Well, the combination of light, plants, animals, water will create an atmosphere, possibly even one similar to our own. The only way we will be able to tell is to try, to learn more about rehabilitation on earth, and to monitor changes and adaptively manage our terra-forming practices.

So, I suppose I can say that by researching mine-rehabilitation, that I am also potentially improving our knowledge on how to grow food on Mars! Pretty rad.

Terra-forming is so complex! Understanding each intricate detail would take hundreds (possibly thousands) of years of research. We still have many unanswered questions regarding space travel, let alone the ability to utilise a planet to make it habitable for human life. Besides all of the science questions, there are other questions too: ethics, political and economic. However, just thinking about how real science could potentially used to grow plants on Mars is pretty cool!

For more on Scientists exploring terra-forming and growing plants on other planets/Moons, have a look at some of the links below:
ScienceBlogs: Could we garden on Mars?
Pruned: Fake Moon Dirt
Technovelgy: Space Mirrors Could Create Mars Pocket Eden
Mars Homestead Project

For copies of my papers, please email me!

Want to know more about land rehabilitation? Leave me a comment!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fungi can help to save the World!

Fungi really are my obsession at the moment. I recently watched a Ted Talk by Paul Stamets on 6 ways mushrooms can save the world! Even though we know very little about fungi, there is also a lot we do know.

Paul talks about the properties of different fungi, particularly Mycelium, and how they are the veins in our planet.
Is this the largest organism in the world? This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions.
—Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running

Fungi can form huge underground highways; we only see them is when a mushroom or toadstool pops up. Fungi are great organic recyclers, decomposers and filters. They can break down anything into simple sugars, which are then used by other organisms or help to bind soil. Fungi are essential in nutrient and water cycling, and are important for plants, animals and our environment. So, we know that they are important for ecosystems, what else can they do?

The 6-ways Paul says that fungi can save the world, include:
* Cleaning up petrochemical spills: Fungi break down complex chemicals into simple sugars. This means that fungi can be used to clean up oil spills on soil, and can possibly even help with the clean up of the BP spill! Even better, that fungi rehabilitated a site so well,it helped to start and entire new ecosystem.
* Ecotonol: The simple sugars that fungi make could be a source of ethanol. Fungi could break down waste materials, and the sugars it produces then harvested and used in fuels.
* Medicines: Fungi are known to have strong antibiotics, such as penicillin. There is a lot of potential to discover more medicines in different fungi species. For example, the Agericon fungi reduced prevalence of small pox and may do the same for strains of influenza.
* Life Boxes: Cardboard packaging boxes are made with fungi and seeds in the paper walls. After the box is used, it can be opened up, watered and a food garden will grow!
* Reduces bacteria, such as E. coli, in recycled water used on gardens. 
* Kills pests: Paul found that modifying spores of fungi can stop termite invasions! He even tried this in his own home.

Before I watched Paul's talk, I tried to guess some of his ideas. Some of my thoughts were the same, but some were also different:
* Land rehabilitation: Same as what Paul discovered, fungi can be and are used in land rehabilitation. Fungi are often innoculised into seeds or soil to help with growth and development of an ecosystem. I was considering looking at fungi as part of my research on mine rehabilitation. As my fungi-loving supervisor pointed out, there is so little we know about fungi, it would take 4-5 PhD's before we even knew what species were endemic to the area, let alone their role in plant and ecosystem development! However, many rehabilitated mines in Africa have shown that fungi are the first organisms to grown on sites high in heavy metals. Perhaps they can be used to clean up heavy metals and start the process of mine rehabilitation? They could also be used to help start nutrient cycling and plant development.

* As a food source: Many vegetarians know that mushrooms are a high source of iron and protein in their diets. In fact, many vegetarian foods are made with mushroom protein: fake chicken nuggets, Quorn brand, Asian fake-meats etc. The best thing about fungi production is that they can use wastes to grow! This means we don't need to supply them with fertiliser or chemicals or lots of space. They are incredibly energy efficient, and just need nice moist and dark conditions. They have the potential to provide a critical source of iron and protein to developing nations, whilst recycling wastes and limiting use of inputs.
Mushroomy Mince! Yum!

* Help in food production: Particular strains of fungi are often inoculated in seeds to help growth of plants, such as lucerne or other crops. The fungi has  symbiotic relationship with the plant. The plant provides it a home, while the fungi helps to transform nutrients into plant-available forms, and thus helps it grow. Mycorrhiza are well known to help with phosphorous and nitrogen transformation for plants. What other fungi species can help with plant growth? Do they have potential to be used in other food crops? Can we increase production or reduce diseases using fungi? Can we use inoculated seeds world-wide? Could fungi reduce famine? So many questions!

Fungi have so much potential, and there are still so many questions. By better understanding fungi, we can harness their natural nutrient cycling and cleaning abilities to produce food, fuel, medicines, and healthy environments. Who knows what else they can do! What are some ways you think fungi can help save the world?

Want to know more about Fungi and how they can save the world? Check out Paul's talk via TED Talks (below), Paul's company (Fungi Perfecti) or his research on Mycelium and how it can save the world.