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Surprising Science

Look…Those Roots Need Watering

Scientists have created a type of artificial soil that, when combined with a special solution, becomes transparent, allowing 3D imaging of plant roots and the organisms that live in them.

Article written by guest writer Kecia Lynn

What’s the Latest Development?

After two long years of tests and trials, scientists at Scotland’s James Hutton Institute have created a type of transparent artificial soil in which they can grow plants. The soil is made up of pellets of Nafion, a material normally used in power-generating fuel cells that also has the ability to support bacteria. On its own, the soil isn’t as see-through, but “when saturated with a specially designed water-based solution, the way the soil and the solution each bend or ‘refract’ light renders the combination transparent.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The soil gives scientists a much better and more realistic window into how a plant’s rhizosphere — the roots and the organisms living within them — works. It has already been used to examine the interaction between E.coli bacteria and lettuce roots, providing insight into ways to avoid contamination before the produce gets to the shelves. It can also be used to study root system efficiency and provide improvement solutions. Nafion-based soil is expensive, but researchers are looking into finding a more affordable material.

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