An Experience with International Soil Research Networks

Collaborators discuss grassland soil carbon research
near Hulanbuir, China. Photo credit Jiqiong Zhou

By Adam Cobb, Postdotoral Researcher, Oklahoma State Univeristy, USA


There is nothing quite like touching new soil. The soils of China are ancient, but this is my first chance to grab a handful. After leaving our hotel in Beijing at 4am, flying for three hours, and driving on a bombed-out road for another hour, we are in the steppe grasslands of Inner Mongolia in Northwest China.

We are here – with chestnut-colored soil in our hands – because of Jiqiong Zhou (soon to be Dr. Zhou) and her advisor, Dr. Yingjun Zhang. Sixteen months previously, Jiqiong (who also goes by Jolie) emailed Dr. Gail Wilson and asked if she could spend nine months with us at Oklahoma State University. Jiqiong’s research links above- and belowground influences on grasslands with particular emphasis on plant-microbial relationships, such as rhizobia/meliloti and arbuscular mycorrhizal symbioses, which is precisely Gail’s area of expertise.

This PhD student exchange and research collaboration has been amazing. While Jolie was with us, she had the chance to visit the Konza Prairie Biological Research Station (NSF-LTER site) near Manhattan, Kansas, USA. We went up to establish grassland restoration plots, but took time to show her around the station, and particularly to see the bison. Later, she told us how lucky she thinks we are to research in such productive grasslands.

Back in China, her research grasslands are not as productive. With typically 300-400mm annual precipitation, they are a contrast to our tallgrass prairie systems. However, these semi-arid grasslands are critically important, not just for local sheepherders, but for soil ecologists. Climate models predict many mesic grasslands will become more arid during the 21st Century. It is crucial that we untangle the belowground drivers influencing aboveground productivity, plant species diversity, and ecosystem functions in semi-arid grasslands, if we are to manage our global grazing resources in a warmer and drier world.

Cattle grazing in the meadow steppe grasslands
of Inner Mongolia, China. Photo credit Jiqiong Zhou

Bison on Konza Prairie Biological Research Station
near Manhattan, Kansas, USA. Photo credit Adam Cobb

This is where Jolie, and her colleagues in Dr. Zhang’s lab, conduct their valuable soil research. We walk across her plots, and see the yellow-flowered alfalfa (Medicago falcata) she established to rehabilitate these overgrazed areas. Belowground, she assessed how these reseeded legumes influence nutrient cycling, soil microbial communities, and soil metabolites. Today is a hot and sunny one, and we remark at how much data she has collected in these plots, often working by herself.

Jolie’s research is the combination of mechanistic assessments (e.g., microbial genomics) and applied questions. As part of the China Agricultural University’s College of Animal Science and Technology, she is keenly aware that these grasslands are provisioning ecosystems. Grazing treatments (real or simulated) are always part of the research design. Jolie is passionate about reseeded alfalfa because it can regenerate the landscape, increase incomes, and improve soil health.

Gail and I had an amazing experience with Jolie, Dr. Zhang, and their associates. We learned more about their culture, and we touched China’s soil. We are currently planning paired experiments assessing grassland plant and soil dynamics in both China and the USA. These collaborative research networks are key as we strive to conserve and restore global soils.