Digging in to soil microbiology

NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Tiffany Eberhard, one of our summer interns with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!.   Eberhard is starting her senior year at the University of Georgia, double majoring in Environmental Health Science and Anthropology.

“I’m going to Iowa for the summer for a water resource internship,” I told my friends in Georgia, the southern state I call home.
“Oh, the Potato State?” said my friend.
“No, the Corn State!” I replied.

Tiffany Blog Pic

Intern Tiffany Eberhard runs a titration as part of her soil respiration project in the new Sukup Hall Porous Media Lab.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Ames in May, and obviously most of my friends didn’t either. The first night in Ames, there was a tornado spotted near the area and we had to take refuge in the basement of our apartment. I knew this was going to be an exciting summer from day one!

This was my first experience living outside of Athens, Georgia. It did not take long for me to predict what I would see on our long drives through the state: mostly corn and soybean farms. To someone not familiar with agriculture, this might sound, well, boring. And I thought the same until I spent more time observing and working in the fields. There is a quiet beauty to the slow growth of the crops. Starting out as a 2 inch tall seedling, and maturing to a corn plant with husks or soybean plants maturing with pretty purple flowers, these plants use natural resources to stay healthy. Natural resources and their important functions is a topic Water Rocks! teaches to youth throughout the state.

One of the most important natural resource in Iowa is soil. The top soil in Iowa is 1-2 feet deep! I was amazed at how black and rich it was compared to the Georgia red clay from my home. One of the first facts I learned was the vast number of organisms that live in the soil. One shovel of soil contains over 7 billion living creatures! This fact sparked my inquisition into more facts about microorganisms that call the soil their home. There is a whole world beneath our feet!

My project for the summer was to look at carbon dioxide respiration from microbes in the soil as an indicator for soil health. I began the project with a very limited understanding of soil microbiology and its importance, but as I learned about how the microbes respire CO₂ and the methods for measuring this CO₂, I began to unlock the mystery of microorganisms. Microbes in the soil eat decaying plant matter and provide nutrients from this matter to new plants as food. Without microbes, the plants would not be able to obtain their needed nutrients. The more microbes present in the soil, the healthier, on average, the soil. I worked on measuring the amount of carbon given off from different plots of soil, some with and some without cover crops. Data collection is still in progress, but hopefully we will have information in the future that supports previous data that cover crops correlate to more microbes in the soil and therefore, healthier soil.

Working with soil this summer and especially microbial activity in the soil has opened up a new interest for my future research and possible career. I want to delve deeper into soil microbiology to learn about the hidden world under us. My internship this summer gave me the opportunity to learn about not only Iowa’s rich soil but also about the life that we can’t see with our naked eye.

– Tiffany Eberhard

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