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Morrow Plots: Beckman, ACES collaborate on soil imaging

The collaboration between Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center and the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences will investigate soil samples from the Morrow Plots to study soil and plant health.

Published on Jan. 27, 2020
The historic Morrow Plots, with a building in the background and students working in the field.
Established in 1876, the Morrow Plots is an experimental agricultural field at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the oldest experimental agricultural field in the U.S. The fields are managed by the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences.

A new research collaboration will shed new light on soil samples from the University of Illinois’ Morrow Plots, the oldest agricultural research field in the United States.

The collaboration between the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute and the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences aims to develop new methods and models to study how different soil processes affect soil and plant health.

The analysis is inspired by previous work led by Tony Grift, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who studied how soil compaction affects corn yield. Researchers will use X-ray computed tomography, which is routinely used in biomedical imaging. The imaging studies including the development of image analysis techniques will be carried out in the Molecular Imaging Laboratory directed by Iwona Dobrucka, a senior research scientist at the Biomedical Imaging Center.

Soil Image
The left two images show soil cores taken in farm fields where high tire pressure was applied that caused indirect soil compaction from nearby tires. Both show reduced porosity (dark areas) compared to the two cores shown on the right. Here, similar treatments were applied with low pressure tires. This shows how tire pressure can influence soil porosity, which is important for plant growth and yield. Image provided by Tony Grift.

“We have always known that studying soil structure is important,” said Michelle Wander, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences. “However, a lot of the methods are labor-intensive and indirect. As a result, people are looking for methods that improve our fundamental understanding of intact soils that we can more routinely apply.”

The researchers are using the Morrow Plots at the University of Illinois to develop their tools to study soil structure. "Different fertilizer regimes and crop rotations have been applied across the plots over their 140-year history and have resulted in a large contrast in soil health,” Wander said. “Studying these soils can tell us just how much agricultural practices can alter prime agricultural land.”

Currently, researchers in the U.S. do not use many soil imaging techniques. The new collaboration hopes to change that. “Our biggest goal is to become a hub for soil imaging using X-ray CT,” said Tracey Wszalek, the director of the Biomedical Imaging Center. “We are excited to look at the unique samples that can be found at the Morrow Plots and develop a routine protocol for soil analysis that can be used by soil scientists.”

In this article

  • Iwona Dobrucka
    Iwona Dobrucka's directory photo.
  • Tracey M. Wszalek
    Tracey M. Wszalek's directory photo.

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