Grant awarded: Zac Freedman receives NSF funding to generate soil microbial functions data to improve climate models

Zac Freedman, assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science, recently received $1.2 million in funding for a project titled “Leveraging spectroscopy and in situ soil sensing for the prediction of keystone soil microbial functions,” from the NSF Signal in the Soils (SitS) program. SitS supports collaborative NSF-USDA research on dynamic soil processes and soil formation through advances in sensor systems and predictive, process-based and mechanistic modeling.

Project description (from NSF site): Soil represents the second largest pool of carbon on Earth, and soil microbes like fungi and bacteria are key determinants of the amount of carbon sequestered in soil. Because relatively small changes in the amount of carbon sequestered can affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, soil microbes have the potential to mitigate or exacerbate climate change. Current biogeochemical models of carbon sequestration do not adequately incorporate soil microbial activity and this research team will use recently developed sensors to explore the role of soil microbes to carbon dynamics in diverse ecosystems. More specifically, this project will implement novel low-cost and efficient soil sensing platforms to facilitate the rapid estimation of microbial functions from thousands of samples collected across space and time in the continental US to improve predictions of future storage of soil carbon. Additional broader impacts of this project include experiential learning opportunities in soil ecology for high school students across Wisconsin as well as opportunities for young scholars in computer science to develop interactive games about soil sensing, microbial functions, and biogeochemical modeling.

This research will transform understanding of dynamic soil processes by defining parsimonious sets of spectral and microbial parameters that can be used to estimate microbial functions associated with soil carbon dynamics in both natural and managed systems. Interdisciplinary approaches to integrate soil sensing, mechanical engineering, metabolomics, microbiology, and biogeochemistry will be used to uncover relationships between novel in situ soil sensing data, soil spectra, and key microbial functions that are associated with soil carbon sequestration. The project will test the hypothesis that combined mid-infrared spectroscopic and novel in situ soil sensing technology can revolutionize understanding of key microbial processes at regional and continental scales and improve next generation biogeochemical models of carbon sequestration. To test this hypothesis, the team will integrate field and soil spectral observations from two long-term data sources, National Ecological Observatory Network sites and a cropping systems trial in Wisconsin, with lab estimations of soil carbon fractions, microbial activity, and metabolite variability to quantify the capacity of soil sensing technology to predict soil microbial functions that drive soil carbon sequestration. In addition, the resulting dataset that will be made available to the research community to address future questions.