Microbial extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) have been shown to alter soil moisture retention and to improve seedling survival and plant growth at the bulk scale. The mechanisms of EPS-mediated water retention include reversible swelling of the cross-linked polymer matrix and the promotion of an aggregated soil structure. However, the effects of EPS on water retention have never been directly observed at the pore scale. Here, emulated soil micromodels were developed to directly observe the effects of physical, chemical, and biological factors on pore-scale water retention. In this demonstration, a pseudo-2D pore structure was created to represent physical features of a fine sandy loam. Replicate micromodels were initially saturated with suspensions of different soil bacteria, and pore-scale air infiltration was directly imaged over time. External evaporativity was held constant through the use of a custom constant-humidity environmental chamber. Micromodels filled with suspensions of highly mucoid Sinorhizobium meliloti retained moisture about twice as long as physically identical micromodels filled with suspensions of non-mucoid S. meliloti. Relative drying rates in six replicate experiments ranged from 1.1 to 2.5 times slower for mucoid suspensions. Patterns of air infiltration were similar but not identical across replicates. The results suggest that pore fluid EPS and micromodel geometry act together to limit evaporation at pore throats. Advantages of the micromodel approach include direct observation of pore-scale dynamic process, and the ability to systematically replicate complex physical structures. These abilities will enable users to screen benefits from different structures and from microbial compositions, and build predictive understanding of the overall function of microbe-habitat systems.
Deng, Jinzi, Erika P. Orner, Jessica Furrer Chau, Emily M. Anderson, Andrea L. Kadilak, Rebecca L. Rubinstein, Grant M. Bouchillon, Reed A. Goodwin, Daniel J. Gage, Leslie M. Shor
Soil Biology and Biochemistry