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Deep into Soil

March 20, 2024

The University of Idaho has received a large grant toward equipping a planned deep-soil research facility with advanced technology capable of capturing the “molecular fingerprint” of soil.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust awarded a research team led by U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) $550,000 — the largest grant the trust has ever awarded the university — to help fund a proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometer. The machine will monitor a broad range of volatile organic compounds emitted by soil microorganisms, informing researchers about the living components of soils.

The highly sensitive instrument separates volatile compounds by their charge and mass, then analyzes their component molecules.

It will be part of the laboratory supporting the university’s forthcoming Deep Soil Ecotron.

“The plants and soil microbes produce their own chemicals to communicate and react to the environment. We’re adding this whole other dimension by looking at the fingerprint of the chemicals that these organisms give off,” said Zachary Kayler, an associate professor with the Department of Soil and Water Systems within CALS. “We might be able to determine different microbial communities by looking at the different chemicals they exude below ground.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded U of I about $19 million toward construction of the Ecotron in September 2021. Renovations of rooms in the JW Martin Laboratory at the Moscow campus are underway to house the Ecotron, where scientists will have the ability to manipulate several environmental variables and study various soil types down to 3 meters — the greatest depth of any research facility in the world. The first of 24 planned eco-units — soil columns inside of heavily instrumented stainless-steel cylinders — should arrive on campus this summer.

Probes at various depths in the Ecotron soil columns will transfer gases emitted to the mass spectrometer, which will evaluate them and visually depict them in a graph, called a chromatogram.

The Ecotron should be fully operational by 2026, accommodating researchers from throughout the world who will manipulate variables in replicated trials studying how climate change, soil heating, drought, changes in gas concentrations affect soil function.

Kayler and Michael Strickland, a colleague within the Department of Soil and Water Systems, are co-directors of the Ecotron. Investigators overseeing the mass spectrometer project include Kayler, Strickland, Leda Kobziar and Armando McDonald, with the College of Natural Resources, and Klas Udekwu, with the College of Science.

“There isn’t a facility that exists to do these types of experiments,” Kayler said regarding the combination of the Ecotron and the mass spectrometer.

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, created by the will of the late Melvin J. Murdock, provides grants to nonprofit organizations in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington that seek to strengthen the region’s educational, social, spiritual and cultural base in creative and sustainable ways.

The grant will also support research projects involving the mass spectrometer to understand plant and soil interactions, analyze ties between wildfires and microbial communities, evaluate emissions from the degradation of bioplastics and to better understand certain gastrointestinal ailments.

The Ecotron project was funded to U of I by the NSF under award No. 2131837. The total funding authorization is $18,950,955, of which 100% is the federal share.

Published in Catching Up with CALS

Zachary Kayler and Michael Strickland co-directors of the Ecotron project.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


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