To overcome these challenges, this project will fund development of a soil “Microbiotron” — a modular system of 48 soil-plant incubation chambers, each individually instrumented and controlled by a centralized system. This system will allow researchers to control, replicate, and monitor soil conditions and processes and manipulate and analyze microbial communities and their activities over time. This soil Microbiotron will leverage and expand upon the environmental control capacities of the UW-Madison Biotron Laboratory to provide an unparalleled level of control and monitoring of soil functions, enabling researchers across the university to “open the black box”.
The soil microbiome is integral to environmental health, agricultural productivity, and global biodiversity. However, despite its importance, it is often described as a “black box” — a system where inputs and outputs are well characterized, but the mechanisms driving them are not. The complexity of soil systems limits the utility of highly simplified laboratory studies, while field studies struggle to disentangle uncontrolled variables.