NSF Award Will Let UM Researchers Dig Deeper into Innovative Soil Technology

Helping farmers and agricultural professionals detect nutrients and harmful chemicals in their soil in an easy, affordable and long-term way is the goal of a group of researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The promise of their new technology just landed them a competitive National Science Foundation award.

“We were very excited,” said Sylvia Daunert, Pharm.D., MS, Ph.D., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and associate director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Biomedical Foundation Nanotechnology Institute of University of Miami (BioNIUM), when she and colleagues discovered they received the prestigious funding.

Dr. Daunert, Sapna K. Deo, Ph.D., professor and Graduate Program director in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Shouan Zhang, Ph.D., of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences of the University of Florida, have developed “smart” whole-cell biosensors (WCBs). These sensors can detect nutrients essential to soil well-being, including copper, zinc, sulfate, and phosphate. They can also signal the presence of harmful chemicals.

The bacterial spores in this “Signals in the Soil” project are engineered to emit light when they detect specific beneficial or harmful soil components. The visual signals will serve as an early alarm. The goal is to identify changes in the soil, which will allow growers to take immediate action, thereby ensuring the health of plants and crops.

The sensors will also look at the bigger picture.

“We also plan to detect bacterial quorum-sensing molecules as indicators of microbial communities present in soil that are necessary for soil health,” said Dr. Deo.

The WCBs are designed to be rugged and long lasting, analogous to some bacteria that transform into tough, dormant endospores during times of duress. Using endospores to store the WCBs will allow researchers — and, ultimately, end users — to preserve, transport, store, and apply the sensors in all types of environments. This resilient packaging also permits their use in the field and in remote agricultural locations without easy access to laboratories.

The Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award supports early-stage, exploratory research on technologies with the potential to be transformative.

“EAGER is unique in that it funds projects that other, more traditional programs don’t,” said Dr. Daunert.

The program funds “high-risk, high-payoff” work that typically involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective.

Multiple sections of the National Science Foundation award the EAGER grants, including directorates in engineering, biological sciences, computer and information science and engineering, and geosciences.

The two-year, $300,000 EAGER grant will help the researchers meet the project’s three main objectives: engineer the spores to monitor the chemical characteristics of soil; establish and monitor the soil’s microbial fingerprint; and validate their use in variable, simulated field conditions.

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