JANUARY 30, 2024 — Two UTSA researchers have received federal funding to study the health of San Antonio’s soil. Principal investigator Allison Veach, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, and co-principal investigator Saugata Datta, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, received a four-year, $489,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to understand if cost-effective microbiological techniques can provide accurate data for soil quality.
They also hope to better understand how landscape variables may impact the data they gather from these techniques.
Soil is the foundation of Earth’s environment and is critical to human life. With a healthy level of water and nutrients, soil performs essential functions that are vital to an ecosystem such as helping plants grow, recycling matter and providing homes for beneficial microorganisms.
To understand the soil’s health, Veach, Datta and their students will measure both the prevalence of microbes and the geochemistry of urban and rural soils in terms of nutrients and trace elements that dictate their prevalence. Ultimately, they will build a database that will identify the microbiological and physico-chemical properties that are important for soil health and how soil health varies across land use in Central and South-Central Texas. The researchers will also explore how the history of land use has influenced microscopic biomass and other related soil biological health indicators.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Veach learned about a new firm that produces paper microscopes called foldscopes to increase nature engagement in the community. Foldscopes enable community participants to collect valuable information from soil samples that aid researchers. With these easily accessible tools, which cost less than $10, members of the community can measure soil samples anywhere without needing a laboratory or expensive microscope.
“I’ve really learned about the power foldscopes may hold for engaging community members in data collections for scientific research,” said Veach. “If data collected using these microscopes can provide a better picture of soil quality, it could be a gamechanger for both broadening national data collections through individual participation and increasing awareness of microbial importance for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.”
Veach originally planned to purchase and distribute the foldscopes to her environmental microbiology students so they could identify microbes in the environment. She thought that doing so would make her course more accessible. She’s since expanded the study and is seeking external support to utilize foldscopes within the community.
“Light microscopes that researchers, or even high school classrooms, use are too expensive for the average person,” said Veach. “Understanding if we can use a low-cost microscope will allow us to achieve a significant advancement in citizen science directed towards soils.”
She added, “We can start to collate information other community participants collect to gain a better understanding of how healthy your soil is based on how many microbes we can count under the paper microscope.”
Veach and Datta will coordinate field sampling and laboratory data collection and analysis. They will be assisted by Lauren Miranda, a UTSA senior studying environmental science. Miranda will help process soil samples already collected from natural areas and parks in San Antonio to determine the amount of water, organic matter, carbon and other essential nutrients present in those areas.
Additionally, Veach and Datta plan to hire two doctoral students this summer to lead the foldscope measurements, microbial counts and soil geochemistry in the laboratory for samples collected in San Antonio green areas and from other soil survey collaborations in Texas grasslands. These students will study the soil nutrients and soil moisture and other physicochemical relations to trace elements in the soils.
The data collected from this project will help researchers from UTSA and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) understand if foldscope applications are accurate and can be disseminated to other regions that need to collect microbial data for a broad soil quality assessment.
“It is important in evaluating how formation, source, texture and nutrient infiltration and retention capacities in soils may influence these findings, Datta said.
Veach leads the Veach Lab and specializes in ecosystem ecology, environmental microbiology, and stream and soil ecology. After working as a postdoctoral researcher for three years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on an extensive grant for the U.S. Department of Energy, Veach transitioned into the role of a research and development staff scientist in 2018 before her appointment at UTSA a year later. In both roles, she gained a deep understanding and expertise in soil microbiology and general soil science.
Datta is the director of the UTSA Institute for Water Research, Sustainability and Policy. His Chemical Hydrology and Mass Spectrometry Laboratory will be the site for most of the soil extractions and analyses that relate to nutrient and trace element studies. Datta’s expertise is in soil chemistry, water resources, water availability and understanding the cycling of different metals in groundwaters, surface waters and groundwater systems.
Datta was a professor at Kansas State University for 11 years before joining UTSA as a professor in 2019. He was named chair of the UTSA Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in 2022.
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