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This Week in Research – Soil your undies for science!

Soil your undies for science!

This April, during the National Soil Conservation Week, the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) launched the ‘Soil Your Undies’ campaign, an experimental initiative that encourages the Canadian public to bury their underwear in soil for a couple of months.

As odd as this initiative may appear, the campaign is meant to raise public awareness about the biological activity of soil. After the underwear has been buried, participants will then dig them up, weigh the results of organic matter decomposition, thus allowing them to observe the aftermath of soil biological activities which aren’t normally visible to the naked eye. This experimental endeavor and public engagement strategy, ‘using underwear to measure the ecology of the earth’, in fact mimics a more serious and extensive body of research currently taking place at Laurentian University under the direction of Dr. Nathan Basiliko, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology.

Dr. Basiliko mentors graduate and undergraduate research students at the Vale Living with Lakes Center and the department of Biology at Laurentian University, to uncover how soil microorganisms control ecosystem functioning and resilience.

Under this scope of work, Dr. Basiliko is mentoring Biology Masters student Leland Johnston in his study on how residual organic matter from the pulp and paper sectors might be beneficially used as soil amendments.  The study implies a thorough understanding of the biological activity of soils and sheds light on the related ecological implications of recycling organic waste for soil remediation. The broader project is collaborative with colleagues at the Pulp and Paper Research Centre at the University of Toronto and McGill University, and at Laurentian also involves Dr. Graeme Spiers and Dr. Peter Beckett. The team received notice of new funding from NSERC and the pulp and paper sector just this week to support the work over the next 4 years.

Using a more scientific approach than that of the ‘undies experiment’, Leland buries different types of small mesh bags containing primary pulp sludge and biosolids, in different soil environments, retrieves sub sets of them every few months, dries them out, weighs them to study their rates of degradation in different soils, and analyzes their nutrient compositions to understand how they affect the cycling of nutrients in the soils. The point of interest in these mill residuals is that they are naturally rich in organic matter, which brings Leland to hypothesize that they could naturally provide nutrients to the soils and, if properly processed and composted can substantially increase soil fertility in areas where resource management such as agriculture or forestry or pollution has led to declining soil health.

The outcomes and implications of such a study are many. From the ecological implication of recycling potentially useful waste products that originated in the biomass of northern Canadian forests and lessening their burden on the environment, to providing solutions and industrial applications for land remediation, the impacts of this research are particularly promising for Sudbury, where industrial activities and erosion caused poorly developed acidic soils and nutrient depleted barren lands. So while ‘playing in the dirt’ raises public awareness of undercover soil activities, Dr. Basiliko and Mr. Johnston are digging deeper for impactful understandings and promising implications of recycling organic waste products, for soil conservation.


Soil Conservation Council of Canada, ‘Soil your Undies’ initiative:

CBC Radio interview with Dr. Nathan Basiliko: