Seed World

Studying Soil to Understand Drought

A University of California, Riverside assistant professor and a team of researchers are using an often overlooked tool to fight the drought: soil.
Samantha Ying, an assistant professor of environmental sciences, will receive a $1.69 million grant from the University of California Office of the President that will allow she and her team to study the role of soil as it relates to how crops use water and respond to drought.
The grant is one of four awards totaling more than $4.8 million from University of California President Janet Napolitano’s President’s Research Catalyst Awards. The four winning projects were chosen from a pool of more than 180 proposals.
Ying will collaborate with researchers at three UC campuses (Davis, Berkeley, Merced), Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and several Agricultural Research and Extension Centers.
California agriculture faces enormous challenges as climate changes and access to water is reduced and less predictable. California’s recent drought is expected to cost the state over $2.7 billion with a loss of greater than 17,100 jobs in 2015 alone.
Soil, particularly soil carbon and its microbiome, plays a critical role in crop water use efficiency and crop response to drought. Physical, chemical and biological interactions in soil at the micrometer scale form soil aggregates that are critical in storing carbon and contain the small pores needed to retain moisture.
The grant will allow for the establishment of the University of California Consortium for Drought and Carbon Management (UC DroCaM), which will design management strategies based on understanding soil carbon, the soil microbiome and their impact on water dynamics in soil.
The team of researchers will conduct field and lab research on microbiological, biophysical, and geochemical mechanisms controlling soil aggregate formation and stability under different row crops (tomatoes, alfalfa, wheat), farming practices (carbon inputs and rotations) and irrigation methods (furrow and flood, microirrigation).
Information on mechanisms will be integrated into a regionally-scalable predictive model to describe soil carbon dynamics and estimate the response of agricultural systems to drought.
The field research will be conducted at three UC Research and Extension Centers (Kearney, West Side and Desert) the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility near UC Davis.
Ying’s collaborators are: Kate Scow and Sanjai Parihk (UC Davis); Eoin Brodie and Margaret Torn (UC Berkeley); Asmeret Berhe and Teamrat Ghezzehei (UC Merced); and Peter Nico and William Riley (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory).
Napolitano launched the President’s Research Catalyst Awards in December 2014. The program channels $10 million over three years to fund research in areas of strategic importance, such as sustainability and climate, equity and social justice, health care and basic discovery.
To qualify, projects must be multi-campus, multi-disciplinary efforts that offer research, teaching and learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. This year, applicants were also asked to incorporate public engagement and faculty mentorship components into the projects.