Underpants hanging on a washing line

Scientists are burying 2,000 pairs of underpants in Switzerland

Exploring a new Y-frontier in ecological research.

News in briefs: a study codenamed Proof By Underpants is underway in Switzerland, where researchers are sending thousands of pairs of white, cotton underwear to volunteers, who will bury them in their gardens. Believe it or not, it’s a cutting-edge way to measure soil health.

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Scientists from the state research institute Agroscope will later dig up the soiled unmentionables and analyse them. They’ll look at the extent to which tiny organisms in the earth have eaten away at the fabric. The holier the better.

“Apart from the waistband and the seams, our test pants are made from 100 per cent biodegradable organic cotton,” reads the project’s public website. “This substance can serve as a food source for various microorganisms in the soil. They eat the underpants with ravenous hunger. The more active microorganisms live in the soil, the faster and the more holistically the underpants will be eaten up.”

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Each volunteer will receive two pairs of pants. One will be dug up after a month, the other after two months. They’ll be analysed for holes to determine the health of what the researchers call “the jungle beneath our feet”. Volunteers and scientists will also analyse teabags buried at the same time as a control, as well as DNA from the surrounding soil to determine what kinds of organisms live there.

Soils are home to billions of bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and other creatures, but little is known about their ecosystem and how it affects things like crop yields or flood protection.

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The citizen science aspect of the project is designed to raise awareness of global soil erosion. Increased use of fertilisers and construction are thought to be two of the major factors accelerating the loss of fertile soils. As well as habitat loss, this can lead to poorer protection against natural disasters and increased levels of chemicals seeping into streams and rivers.

Reader Q&A: I’m 47. How many trees would I need to plant to carbon offset my life?

The average person in the UK has a carbon footprint of about 13 tonnes per year. This is a ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ value (CO2e), as it also includes emissions of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, adjusted so that the warming from these gases can be compared to the warming from carbon dioxide.

Multiplying that figure by 47 years, and taking into account the fact that average carbon footprints have generally increased since you were born, gives a rough value of 500 tonnes CO2e (assuming also that your carbon footprint as a child was equal to that of an adult).

This value of 500 tonnes is about the same amount of CO2 that would be taken out of the atmosphere if you planted a hectare (100 x 100m) of mixed broadleaved woodland in the UK and let it grow for 50 years. This would be about 2,250 trees, and it’d cost you between about £10,000 and £25,000 to do this through a government grant-aided scheme.

However, there are only so many trees we can ever plant in the UK, or even in the world. And it takes years for trees to capture useful amounts of carbon. So tree-planting projects have their limits. Much better is to reduce our carbon footprint in the first place by addressing some of the segments in the pie chart above.

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