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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The UW–Madison Microbiotron: A Modular Experimental Platform to Crack Open the Plant-Soil-Microbial Black Box

The soil microbiome is integral to environmental health, agricultural productivity, and global biodiversity. However, despite its importance, it is often described as a “black box” — a system where inputs and outputs are well characterized, but the mechanisms driving them are not. The complexity of soil systems limits the utility of highly simplified laboratory studies, while field studies struggle to disentangle uncontrolled variables.

To overcome these challenges, this project will fund development of a soil “Microbiotron” — a modular system of 48 soil-plant incubation chambers, each individually instrumented and controlled by a centralized system. This system will allow researchers to control, replicate, and monitor soil conditions and processes and manipulate and analyze microbial communities and their activities over time. This soil Microbiotron will leverage and expand upon the environmental control capacities of the UW-Madison Biotron Laboratory to provide an unparalleled level of control and monitoring of soil functions, enabling researchers across the university to “open the black box”.


Thea Whitman, Assistant Professor of Soil Science


Randy Jackson, Professor of Agronomy

Richard Lankau, Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology

Kevin Panke-Buisse, Research Microbiologist at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center

Erin Silva, Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology


Timothy Berry, Research Associate in Soil Science


Jean-Michel Ane, Professor of Bacteriology and Agronomy

Rob Anex, Professor of Bioprocess Engineering, Systems Analysis, Life-cycle Assessment

Francisco Arriaga, Assistant Professor of Soil Science

Julie Dawson, Assistant Professor of Horticulture

Claudio Gratton, Professor of Entomology and Zoology

Jo Handelsman, Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, Professor of Plant Pathology

Paul Koch, Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology

Chris Kucharik, Professor of Agronomy

Richard Lindroth, Professor of Entomology

Erika Marin-Spiotta, Associate Professor of Geography

Katherine McMahon, Professor of Bacteriology, and Civil and Environmental Engineering

Anne Pringle, Associate Professor of Botany

Eric Roden, Professor of Geoscience

Matt Ruark, Associate Professor of Soil Science

Doug Soldat, Associate Professor of Soil Science

Anita Thompson, Professor of Biological Systems Engineering

Phil Townsend, Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology

Michel Wattiaux, Professor of Dairy Science