About SBI Research:

The Subsurface Biosphere and Sustainable Natural Resources

Diagram of SBI research areas.
Link to Global Chemical Cycles


Oregon is a land of diverse natural resources and ensuring their sustainability requires wise management practices. Example resources are our forests, agricultural, and water. Management practices related to maintaining soil and water quality are critical to the long-term sustainability of these resources. The subsurface biosphere plays a key role in maintaining the quality and productivity of these resources.


Comparison photographs of two forest study sites.

Forest productivity and maintenance of forest health are dependent in large part on properly functioning soils. High quality soils support a rich and active biological community, are high in nutrients, and transmit and store water effectively. Forests growing on high quality soils are more productive and less prone to pathogen or insect damage compared to those established on infertile or droughty soils. Unwise management practices that promote erosion, compaction, and nutrient removal can degrade high quality soils into less productive ones.


Agriculture will continue to play a major role in Oregon’s economy. Nonetheless, because the best agricultural land and the greatest urbanization are both located in the Willamette valley, there will continue to be a need to modify our land management practices. Questions will continually be raised about the spatial and temporal impacts of our actions on agricultural productivity and sustainability. For example, sustainable agricultural productivity requires managed inputs of nutrients and water. The combination of excesses of nutrients and water on agricultural land can have detrimental effects on our health and well being because of fate and transport through the subsurface environment. The interactions between water movement, microorganisms, and fates of fertilizers, biosolids, and other agrochemicals transferred into the subsurface play critical roles in the economics of agriculture and forestry, and also in the impact of these industries on the environment. Despite a superficial understanding of biologically mediated transformations in the subsurface, we are a long way from being able to quantify them and place them into models where we can predictably understand their impact upon managing our land resources and its sustainability over the long term.


Soils—The Final Frontier” appeared on the cover of the 11 June 2004 issue of Science, which highlighted the dependence of terrestrial life on soils and their properties and processes. Although this central role of soils has been appreciated for millennia, it has long been viewed as a black box by both land managers and scientists. In part, this perception is based on the inherent difficulty in working with a highly heterogeneous, opaque system. In the last decade, new technologies have allowed scientists to open this black box to better understand the physical, chemical, and biological complexity within. Advances in imaging, such as the advanced photon source and computerized tomography, allow for micrometer-scale, three-dimensional images of the soil pore space. Our understanding of soil physical structure and transport processes has increased with these advances. Our understanding of carbon storage in soil and the binding and movement of organic pollutants in soil is greatly improved with a new technique called 13C-Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, which allows us to track where carbon resides in soil. Microbial ecologists are routinely applying the techniques of molecular biology (such as DNA sequencing) to study the vast diversity of soil microorganisms. They are finding that a single soil sample can contain more than a thousand species of microorganisms, most of which have never been grown in a culture and their function in the soil is unknown.

Water Quality

In the heavily populated areas of Oregon, water moves from the mountains through forested lands, through agricultural lands, through the urban-agricultural interface, through metropolitan areas, and across the ocean-land interface. This “stream of flow” in and of itself physically links many different parts of Oregon society, and also links them to OSU’s land grant mission of research, teaching and outreach. Research into water use and quality is a complex subject. It remains unclear to what extent the different subsurface environments influence water quality in the different land use regions of Oregon, or how that influence impacts water properties further downstream.

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