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Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Booster Shots’ of Healthy Dirt Can Bring Barren Landscapes Back to Life

Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Soil may be one of our planet's most underrated heroes. Without it, we miss out on verdant lawns and shady forests and have nowhere to grow fruit, vegetables, nuts, or grains. And without it, our food chain could fall apart. And this is not some theoretical, dystopian future; soil degradation is already a real problem for farmers all over the globe. So you can imagine that researchers were pleased to learn that a tiny transplant of healthy soil might be enough to invigorate depleted land. They published their findings in the journal Nature Plants.

Earlier studies had already shown that infusing barren land with healthy soil can help restore its fertility, but large-scale soil transplants are expensive, and scientists weren’t totally sure how it worked. So four Dutch researchers decided to try a large-scale experiment to look at very specific aspects of the process.

They found a depleted field that had, for many years, been farmland, and marked off large plots (five to 12 acres). Next, they dug away the topsoil in the test areas, peeling back that layer to reveal the vulnerable earth underneath. Upon some plots, they then spread a very thin (just one centimeter) layer of healthy soil from either nearby grasslands or shrublands. They left other plots untouched to act as controls. Then they stepped back and let nature do its thing for six years.

They returned to find quite dramatic results. Plots that had gotten the micro-dose of new soil had made a tremendous recovery.

Untreated vs. treated plots of land. Image credit: E.R.J. Wubs

The areas inoculated with grassland soil had produced lots of grassland plants, and the same was true for the heathlands. This might seem obvious—of course grassland soil would include the seeds of grassland plants—but further tests in a greenhouse showed that even when a plot was strewn with both kinds of seeds, the soil itself determined which seeds succeeded.

This study opens up a lot of possibilities for soil treatment. Once again, that may not sound like much, but try imagining your life without food. 

Root biologist Harsh Bais of the University of Delaware, Newark, was not affiliated with the study, but he’s excited about the results. "This is a really cool and remarkable study," he told Science. "Dirt matters."

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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environment
London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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iStock

Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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