Catching Up with CALS — Oct. 6, 2021
Dean's Message — Water Works
The new water year started early Friday with a welcome bit of rain in northern Idaho. The showers barely wet the thirsty ground in many places, but they were far better than nothing.
In a year when much of Idaho faces drought of historic proportions, the work of CALS researchers and Extension faculty have focused on addressing this crisis.
No one doubts the economic value of water in Idaho and its ability to nurture rain-fed crops in northern Idaho and irrigate fields in southern Idaho that collectively produce billions in cash receipts for farmers each year.
We value snow and rain for the rangelands, pastures and hayfields that support livestock operations that produce billions of dollars more for the state.
Our work includes the collaboration between Moscow-based Erin Brooks and Twin Falls-based Howard Neibling to monitor soil conditions and irrigation efficiency at the new Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment demonstration farm near Rupert.
Water engineer Rick Allen’s work began in Kimberly to create the METRIC water monitoring system to help resolve problems and harnessed satellite technology that has received recognition from Harvard University and interest from Google.
UI Extension, Idaho County Chair Jim Church in Grangeville provided a video tutorial to help cattle producers learn how to ammoniate straw as a hay alternative in the face of the worst six-month stretch of drought there in 127 years of record keeping. His work is part of a statewide team’s efforts.
And then there’s Jim Ekins, Extension area water educator based in Coeur d’Alene who directs the IDAH2O program, and Olga Walsh, Extension specialist based in Parma who focuses on precision agriculture, soil fertility, and water and nutrient management.
Their work, like Church’s, directly connects to Idaho residents’ interest in maintaining water quality and wringing the most value from every drop used by agriculture.
Like Allen’s work, researchers Greg Moller, Dan Strawn and Martin Baker connect the theoretical to practical uses. In their case, new technologies reclaim phosphorous from water used by municipalities and companies and return it to the environment.
Monitoring data from the Bluewater Pro system developed by Moller and used in Plummer provides beautiful Lake Coeur d’Alene with water more pristine than the lake itself.
The challenge we face as a state is we cannot live without water for our homes and industries, but that often means adapting to what nature supplies and ensuring we waste not a drop. That may be a silver lining to this parched autumn: CALS is on it.
Michael P. Parrella
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
By the Numbers
2021 produced 4.67 inches of precipitation, or .1 inch more than Latah County’s lowest recorded total precipitation from March through August. The 4.57 inches recorded in 1924 ranks as the lowest total in 126 years, National Climate Data Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration data show. Record keeping began in Latah County in 1895. The No. 3 lowest total was 6.3 inches in 1973; No. 4, 6.42 inches in 1939; and No. 5, 6.45 inches in 1949. The 19.16 inches in 1948 ranks as the most recorded during the 6-month span and over 4.1 times this year’s total.
Our Stories — New Lab Looks Deep into Soil
A facility designed to study soil at depths greater than anywhere else in the world will be built by University of Idaho researchers with support from an $18.9 million National Science Foundation grant.
The Deep Soil Ecotron will enable scientists to conduct experiments on columns of soil up to three meters deep (about 10 feet). Currently, to study soils, scientists often dig pits that destroy the soil systems as they are uncovered. Also, most research involves just the top 30 centimeters (roughly one foot) of soil. There is a lot to be learned by going deeper, said Michael Strickland, the project’s lead principal investigator.
“Deep soils are probably one of the last research frontiers,” said Strickland, a U of I associate professor of microbial ecology. “Soils are inherently important to life on the planet from supporting plants to driving processes like carbon and nutrient cycling, but a lot of research has been focused on the surface. This facility would enable us to better understand those processes at depth.”
When complete, the Deep Soil Ecotron will contain as many as 24 “eco-units,” essentially huge columns used to study soil cores complete with above-ground plants and below-ground organisms such as insects and microbes. Researchers will be able to control a range of variables including temperature, water and exposure to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Ecotron will be housed at the university’s JW Martin Laboratory with renovation expected to start in spring 2022.
Only 13 facilities of this type exist in the world with most located in Europe. None go to the soil depths planned at U of I, and the new Ecotron will give scientists greater ability to monitor and manipulate the eco-units for controlled experiments.
Co-lead investigator Zachary Kayler, who has conducted experiments at the Ecotron in France, said the U of I Deep Soil Ecotron will be a resource not only for the region but for scientists across the country and around the world.
“This facility will represent a huge leap forward in our understanding of soil and terrestrial ecosystems — on the level of space and deep ocean exploration after similar investments,” said Kayler, a U of I assistant professor of biogeochemistry. “We're facing times of uncertainty. We don’t know where the climate trends are going and can’t prepare using past knowledge. This facility will allow us to perform experiments which will help us plan for those future environmental conditions.”
Studies conducted at the Ecotron will improve understanding of how deep soil organisms react to unprecedented conditions, how soil systems respond to agricultural practices and how well they sequester carbon. A range of soils can be studied from the loess found on the Palouse region in Idaho and Washington to soils brought in from the tropics. The eco-units will also be used to develop sensors to monitor deep soils in the field.
This facility puts Idaho on the map as a global leader in deep soil research, said Chris Nomura, U of I vice president for Research and Economic Development.
“The Deep Soil Ecotron is truly a unique asset in the world that will enable researchers to design new types of experiments and ask questions that were previously impossible to examine,” said Nomura.
While housed at U of I, the Deep Soil Ecotron has multiple collaborators including scientists at University of Colorado, University of Delaware, University of Hawaii, North Dakota State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of Wyoming. Most of these institutions are part of EPSCoR, NSF’s program to stimulate competitive research in historically underfunded states. One of the project goals is to create a national network of scientists, starting with these partners, who will conduct experiments at the new facility.
U of I researchers are planning workshops for interested scientists so that experiments can begin as soon as the facility is built. They will also begin recruiting graduate students for a project management training program that aims to teach future scientists how to construct and run research facilities like this one.
This project was funded to the Regents of the University of Idaho by the National Science Foundation under award 2131837. The total project funding released is $75,000, of which 100% is the federal share. The anticipated funding amount for FFY21 is $8,500,000 and the anticipated total funding authorization is $18,950,955.
Formica Ant Queens May Prefer Used Homes
CALS entomologist Marek Borowiec and colleagues from Arizona State University and Harvard University explored the evolution of social parasitism in Formica ants in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Look down anywhere in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, and there is a good chance that the first ant you see belongs to the group of species with the scientific name Formica, which means ant in Latin. Despite countless studies on their biology and conservation, scientists have only had a vague idea about the evolution of these ants.
Like all ants, Formica are social insects that live in colonies consisting of a queen and workers. Unlike other ants, queens in many Formica species do not start new colonies on their own but invade existing colonies or return to their home colony. This behavior of taking advantage of other colonies is called “social parasitism.”
Borowiec and co-authors used genomic data to build a tree of evolutionary relationships for all major lineages of Formica ants. The data helped trace how the species moved around the globe and how their behaviors evolved.
The work showed the most recent common ancestor of Formica lived between 21 and 31 million years ago, and its queens could start colonies independently. Around 18 million years ago, species began to lose the ability to start colonies, a loss shared by almost half of all Formica species, among which other kinds of social parasitism evolved.
Faces and Places
Paige Hickman, an entomology, plant pathology and nematology graduate student, will study trap crops and crop rotation as a control measure to eradicate the pale cyst nematode in Idaho. She will compare quinoa and litchi tomato as trap crops and evaluate three-year crop rotations with trap crops and resistant potato varieties to reduce pale cyst nematodes. Her work is funded by a $29,966 graduate student grant from Western SARE.
Anna Briggs, a CALS entomology doctoral candidate, will serve as an Entomological Society of America Science Policy Fellow, one of five chosen each year. The two-year program focuses on how science policy and science funding decisions are made at the federal level and allows fellows to engage with lawmakers, legislative staff and federal agency leaders. She works with EPPN professor Shirley Luckhart to study the biological factors that impact the transmission of malaria parasites to the mosquito host.
- Oct. 20 — "Identifying Apples: A Multifaceted Approach," Heritage Orchard Conference, 10-11:30 a.m. PDT
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