Researchers at Scotland's Abertay University are getting a brand new look at the seemingly nondescript world hidden in plain sight—the soil beneath our feet.
Using computed tomography—an imaging technique that takes virtual slices of a subject using X-rays—computer modeling, and a 3-D scanner, the team is revealing the previously hidden complex structures of soil.
They have mapped out the pores within soil that are the home to fungi and bacteria using the CT scans. Now, they are using the intricate nylon models emerging from the printer as an ecology lab to see how the microorganisms propagate through the interconnected pores.
"In the past, before X-ray CT scanning became available, soil samples were taken back to the lab and studied there," Wilfred Otten, who studies the biophysics of soil ecosystems, said in a university statement. "But that's like studying the rubble of a collapsed building – you would never be able to tell what the structure of the building had been before it fell down, how many rooms it had, or how many people lived in or used it, and all the different things the different people used it for."
Otten said there are millions of organisms living in every gram of soil that move around and interact with each other. Such complex webs, though, have been difficult to study until now.
"3D printing is a major breakthrough for us, because we now have the ability to examine the structure of soil up close, to see how big the pore spaces within it are, how they are linked together and how the bacteria move through them as we watch their progress in the lab," he said. "We can analyse one species to begin with—providing it with simple food sources—and gradually add more complexity, so that we can eventually get close to replicating the environment they would naturally live in below ground."