"Cleaner" Dirt


When pesticides are used on crops, trace amounts of the chemicals often get left behind in the soil and may even leach into groundwater. But farms of the future could harness the natural cleaning power of microbes to "eat" the pesticide residue and purify the soil, thanks to research taking place at CSU ​Monterey Bay and San José State.

In 2018, CSUMB scientists began a multi-year study on microorganisms that have the natural ability to break down and metabolize environmental pollutants such as the pesticides and nitrates used in agriculture. By sequencing the genome of different strains of microbes, researchers hope to develop natural ways to mitigate pollutants in soil and groundwater.

​​Building off previous work on nitrates (with matching funds from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation), this collaborative project brings together faculty experts from two CSU campuses: assistant professor Nathaniel Jue, Ph.D., associate professor Arlene Haffa, Ph.D., and lecturer John​ Silveus​ at CSUMB's School of Natural Sciences; and professor Jonathan Geller, Ph.D., of San J​​osé State and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

“Pesticides have an important role in the agriculture industry. We're trying to find the right balance, but still protect public resources. Our hope is that this project will lead us to a low-cost, low-maintenance solution to accomplish that task," explains Dr. Jue.

Students are also in on the action. Jue says that at least three graduate students and up to eight undergraduates contribute to the microorganism research at any given time. And in the spring of 2019, six students presented project findings at a California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) meeting.

“Farmers have a lot of things to worry about," he notes. “They're interested in trying to find solutions that are going to be good for them and the state. We're hoping we can continue to work with them to support that effort."

The CSUMB/San José State project received system funding from CSU's Agricultural Research Institute, as well as support from the CDPR and the California Leafy Greens Research Board. 

Removing nitrates and pesticides in soil and groundwater may do more than just help crops and save the ag industry millions: Cleaner soil and water could be useful in addressing the state's unsafe drinking water crisis​, which primarily affects California's rural communities.