Soil and Soil Preparation Laboratory

Plants Sustain Humanity; Soil Sustains Plants

The greatest and most pressing challenges facing the world include a changing climate, ensuring a sufficient supply of safe water, our food security, and environmental quality. All of these are interconnected, of course, but they all depend on plants and our soils.

take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: milkweed

Change your actions:
Even if you aren’t a soil scientist, you can discover how to keep your own soil healthy. A good way to start is by having a sample analyzed professionally.

PHOTO: McDonald Woods

Change your community:
By volunteering in the Garden’s native habitats (McDonald Woods, Dixon Prairie, or Skokie River), you can help monitor the native species nourished by the soil.

In the Laboratory

Together, the Soil Laboratory and Soil Preparation Laboratory cover 1,200 square feet and provide a closed environment for soil research. The Soil Preparation Lab is used for receiving, storing, and processing soils. The Soil Lab proper contains equipment for soil analyses, including microscopes (light, dissecting, FTIR), plate readers, balances, centrifuges, gels, rigs, and a C/N combustion analyzer.

Staff Scientists

Louise Egerton-Warburton, Ph.D.
Soil and Microbial Ecologist

Gregory M. Mueller, Ph.D.
Vice President, Science and Academic Programs

Andrew Wilson, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow

PHOTO: Plants of ConcernHow Soil research benefits you—and the world

What about our soils? Soil has been described as the dynamic skin of the earth. It is one of the largest absorbers of carbon dioxide (CO2), it is living and breathing, and it houses more diversity than all of the animals, plants, and insects combined. Most of its inhabitants are unknown to science but could yield new drugs for medicine and new sources of food. But this will only be possible if we conserve soil along with the plants.

PHOTO: mushroomWhen soil quality suffers, the ability of soil to support plant life is threatened. Global climate change, pollution, rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, invasive plants, and other disturbances all have the potential to impact soils and alter the availability of nutrients and water to plants.

PHOTO: purple mushroomSoil microbes, and particularly fungi, play dominant roles in the decomposition of leaf litter and plant nutrient uptake, and thus influence plant productivity, soil carbon sequestration, and the biogeochemical cycling of key elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Despite their importance, fungi have often been ignored in ecological studies. We therefore need a better understanding of their role in regulating biogeochemical processes so that we can better predict how ecosystems might respond to future change.

Research projects in the Soil Lab span basic and applied research topics; cover a broad range of interactions between fungi, plant roots, and the environment; and span the continuum from genomics to large field studies. Recent projects include

  • the effect of fire frequency on soil microbial communities in the tallgrass prairie;
  • the legacy of invasive plants on microbial communities, and subsequent impacts on native plant growth;
  • the contribution of soil fungi to carbon storage in urban restoration;
  • nitrogen uptake capacity in mycorrhizal oaks;
  • ecohydrology and invasive plants; and
  • developing innovative methods to measure microbial function.

On the education side, our focus is on

  • providing experiential learning opportunities for high-school students and undergraduates;
  • developing courses with student-friendly content; and
  • providing hands-on workshops for teachers.

Case Studies

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PHOTO: Oak savannaWhile the effects of fire frequency on plant productivity and diversity have been extensively studied, there are few comparable studies on the below-ground community. Dr. Egerton-Warburton and graduate student Rachel Gross used a combination of fungal trapping, molecular analysis, and microbial enzyme activities to examine the effects of frequency of fire (every 2-3 years, 5-7 years, or 10-20 years) on the soil fungal community. They found that fire frequency had no significant effect on fungal abundance in the transfer of water between plants by mycorrhizal fungal networks during drought.

PHOTO: sporesPlant roots may be linked by shared or common mycorrhizal networks (or CMNs) in which fungal hyphae and mycelia constitute pathways for the transfer of nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon among plants. Their role in the transfer of water is less well understood. Dr. Egerton-Warburton and colleagues Dr. José Ignacio Querejeta (Universidad de Murcia/CIEBAS, Spain) and Dr. Michael Allen (University of California, Riverside) examined their potential for water transfer by using fluorescent tracer dyes and deuterium-enriched water to follow the pathway of water transfer from well-watered oak seedlings into the roots of water-stressed coast live oak seedlings connected only by CMNs.