PLoS ONE, 01 January 2015, Vol.10(9), p.e0137205
There is currently a significant need to improve our understanding of the factors that control a number of critical soil processes by integrating physical, chemical and biological measurements on soils at microscopic scales to help produce 3D maps of the related properties. Because of technological limitations, most chemical and biological measurements can be carried out only on exposed soil surfaces or 2-dimensional cuts through soil samples. Methods need to be developed to produce 3D maps of soil properties based on spatial sequences of 2D maps. In this general context, the objective of the research described here was to develop a method to generate 3D maps of soil chemical properties at the microscale by combining 2D SEM-EDX data with 3D X-ray computed tomography images. A statistical approach using the regression tree method and ordinary kriging applied to the residuals was developed and applied to predict the 3D spatial distribution of carbon, silicon, iron, and oxygen at the microscale. The spatial correlation between the X-ray grayscale intensities and the chemical maps made it possible to use a regression-tree model as an initial step to predict the 3D chemical composition. For chemical elements, e.g., iron, that are sparsely distributed in a soil sample, the regression-tree model provides a good prediction, explaining as much as 90% of the variability in some of the data. However, for chemical elements that are more homogenously distributed, such as carbon, silicon, or oxygen, the additional kriging of the regression tree residuals improved significantly the prediction with an increase in the R2 value from 0.221 to 0.324 for carbon, 0.312 to 0.423 for silicon, and 0.218 to 0.374 for oxygen, respectively. The present research develops for the first time an integrated experimental and theoretical framework, which combines geostatistical methods with imaging techniques to unveil the 3-D chemical structure of soil at very fine scales. The methodology presented in this study can be easily adapted and applied to other types of data such as bacterial or fungal population densities for the 3D characterization of microbial distribution.
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