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Dr Iain Dunlop
Imperial College London
Research Project Grant

A 3D vision of soil biology using nanoparticles

Inspired by medical techniques, Iain Dunlop and his team use biofunctional nanoparticles to create a technology platform for 3D microscale soil imaging 

Bluebells under a tree.
Soil-based fungal networks sustain plant species, including common bluebells.

Soil is foundational for human society and wild ecosystems, and the awareness of its importance is rising as we face new challenges. The increasing world population and the disappearance of wild species have focused attention on sustainable food production, and carbon-sequestration by soil is critical to combating climate change. At a UK level, there are movements for regenerative and no-till cultivation methods that respect the complexity of soil as a living biological system. In parallel, science has made astonishing progress in understanding 3D physical and biological processes within soil. Nutrients, water and viruses are transported through complex pathways in the soil microstructure, and interconnected networks form from plant roots, fungal networks and bacterial colonies. Despite this growing knowledge, generating 3D images of soil at the microscale remains a challenge. This is a pity since we know from many other fields of science that imaging technologies reveal discoveries that are not possible with non-spatial techniques such as biochemical analysis. 

We are taking inspiration from medical imaging, where X-ray Computed Tomography (CT scans) routinely provide high-quality images that have revolutionised our understanding of how human organs work. Unfortunately, while classical CT scans reveal mineral phases in soil, they cannot distinguish soft phases such as water, fungus and decomposed leaves. Here we will address this challenge by bringing in ideas from biomedical nanotechnology. In this field, which is the focus of my lab, significant progress has been made in developing nanoparticles that survive the complex environment within the human body and target specific phases such as cancer or immune cells.

In this new Leverhulme project, I will work with established soil scientists to apply these concepts to soil imaging, developing nanoparticles that target and label specific regions and structures in soil samples. The nanoparticles will be made of metal so that the labelled phases will show up on CT scans in the same way that a metal joint pin is visible in a classical X-ray photograph. Specifically, we aim to label flowing water and 3D fungal networks and understand how human viruses, such as norovirus, are transported through the microscopic pores and channels in soil. Creating a technology that compares microscopic 3D structures of soils from different agri- and ecosystems will help contribute a unique perspective to our scientific understanding of soil processes and the ongoing debate on safeguarding soil health.

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