Scientists want to know more about what plants are really up to underground. They want a better view of how roots work, and interactions with soils. So, researchers from the James Hutton Institute and the University of Abertay Dundee invented a soil that's see-through enough that they can study the rhizosphere up close.
From the James Hutton Institute:
After two years of painstaking research to find a compound that could replicate soil chemistry, Dr Dupuy and his colleagues found success with a synthetic composite known as Nafion, often used in power-generating fuel cells. This artificial soil is not especially transparent on its own: it becomes translucent when saturated with a special water-based solution. The product is a substrate which is very similar to real soil in terms of physical and biological variables, such as water retention, ability to hold nutrients and capability for sustaining plant growth.
As Gizmag points out, "Forming the polymer into pellets allows it to mimic soil particle properties, such as forming channels, retaining water and nutrients and sustaining plant growth. Fluorescent dyes can also be added to it to aid studies."
The scientists say that the research could have impacts for important issues like food security, figuring out how to breed crops that need less resources like fertilizer, and how climate change affects crops. The results of the researchers' work is published in PLoS One