Farmers focused on the health of their soil play an important role in their own wellbeing, according to a University of Minnesota soil pedologist.

Ties linking soil’s health with ours greater than you realize

Nic Jelinski

“Every (human) heartbeat is due to an atom contained in soil that eventually was released by weathering and made its way into our body,” Nic Jelinski, an assistant professor, said during Wednesday’s virtual Conservation Cropping Seminar. For 184 participants, Jelinski outlined a myriad of human and soil connections, emphasizing interaction and key links between soil and life.

Jelinski explained he studies “the full sweep of soils” from topsoil through the profile, how soils form and why they look the way they do. Not surprisingly, he described soils as “magic” and “the most complex environment on Earth.”

For skeptics of his assertion, the first discovered antibiotic, actinomycin, found in 1940 was isolated from soil microbes.

But soil discoveries continue to improve human health. Jelinski described next-generation technology to stop bleeding that relies on the surface reactivity of a common soil mineral – kaolinitis. When this common soil mineral is integrated into gauze and applied to a wound, it participates in the coagulation process, the professor explained.

Jelinski encouraged his audience to consider how much humans depend on soil for everyday life. “We can trace all the body atomic building blocks as either from soil or being supported by soil on their journey to us,” he said.

Soils are more physically complex, chemically reactive, biologically active and diverse than people know, according to Jelinski.

The physical complexity of soil particle surface areas influences pore spaces that, in turn, affect water infiltration, gas exchange, and plant root growth and development. He showed CT scans of compacted and noncompacted soils and compared the “tortuous route” water travels through compact soil.

Mineral surfaces of soil are often charged and coated with organic matter and iron oxides. He explained small soil organic colloids are negatively charged in the Midwest, while soil water particles have a positive charge, which is important for plant growth. Both negative-charged colloids and positive-charged ions “are stuck to soil particles” and most plants get nutrients from the positive-charged particles, he pointed out.

As for biological activity in soil, “we’re entering a new phase of looking at soil microbes. There is huge diversity of bacterial classes. We’re on the verge of new discoveries,” Jelinski said.

He traced the carbon in a bowl of wheat cereal to carbon from a wheat plant that obtained it from the sun as stored solar energy. Chemical energy is stored in plants and soil, he added.

“When we talk about improving carbon in the soil, you’re increasing energy in the soil, which drives all the biological activity in the soil,” Jelinski said.

“The soil food web provides the basis to store soil energy from the sun to power our world,” the scientist said. “Soils are the factory of life.”