Garcia-Pichel’s lab is developing new technologies to restore this crust, exemplified by its microbial nurseries. Much like reforestation, these nurseries are growing microbiomes that can be planted in the soils.

“If they can scale up this approach in the next phase, it could mean a simple, natural and self-sustaining solution to the loss of soil and air quality in Arizona and many other impacted arid lands,” Jacobs said.

Developed in the last five years, these microbial nurseries were originally part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in an effort to implement sustainable practices for military facilities inhabiting Western arid-lands. Now, the engineering branch of the National Science Foundation is supporting the lab’s efforts to construct mobile microbial nurseries for the effective transport and application of the grown microbial communities through the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at ASU. These mobile nursery facilities are being built in California and will be delivered to ASU shortly.

The novel technology involves taking remaining beneficial microbes from the soil and growing them in the nurseries. Upon ensuring that only local and naturally occurring microbes remain as to avoid disrupting the crust’s biodiversity, the microbial communities are returned to the soil.

“The idea is this: If we destroy the natural crust, they will come back naturally, but that takes a very long time. There are two problems here. One is continued destruction, and then in order for the microbes to recolonize, you have to bring microbes in from somewhere else. That is where we can intervene,” Garcia-Pichel added.

These communities, once returned to the soil, enhance plant growth by promoting soil fertility and bind to soil particles, anchoring them to the crust to reduce the release of airborne particles. To optimize the crust’s fitness and resilience, the microbes are also made “tougher” so that they can cope with the harsh environment that awaits them in the field.  

The first large scale trial of this technology will take place in New Mexico in spring 2019.

Garcia-Pichel believes this recognition is vital, especially in shedding light on his innovative strategies and in changing the public’s perception of what can be done.  

“Having local recognition for innovation is important to us. It makes us feel that our work is relevant,” he said. “Humans are creatures of habit, so when you are innovative, you may have to knock at the door recurrently because people tend to know just what they know. This recognition can be very important in reaching our long-term goals by giving us exposure.”