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Biologists peep into life-sustaining microbial underworld

Last Updated: Sunday, January 6, 2013 - 10:56

Washington: Researchers have unlocked the "black box" to the underground world, home to billions of microscopic organisms, unravelling why they make all life sustainable.

"The organisms that live in soil do all kinds of important things for us -- they decompose and decontaminate our waste and toxic chemicals, purify our water, prevent erosion, renew fertility," said Byron Adams, professor of biology at Brigham Young University and study co-author.

"But we know very little about how they do this. What species need to be present? What are the different jobs that we need them to do?" said Adams, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported.

Adams and colleagues took 16 soil samples from all reaches of the globe, from Antarctica to tropical forest locations, extracted the DNA out of all the organisms in each sample and sequenced it, according to a university statement.
With information about the genome (the complete set of its DNA and all of its genes) of each microbe in the soil, researchers were able to see which organisms do what and whether or not their functional roles are redundant or unique.

"The most obvious applications of this understanding will probably be in agricultural ecosystems," Adams said.

A better understanding of below-ground ecosystems can help humans predict how those systems will respond to things such as climate change or perturbations to the soil from mining, drilling or waste. And, hopefully, that understanding can help prevent agricultural or environmental catastrophes.

"People think you`re going to pick up a handful of dirt anywhere in the world and you`ll pretty much have the same bunch of microbes doing pretty much the same things," Adams said.

"That`s simply not true."

On the other hand, in ecosystems like deserts, where there are few species and even fewer jobs, removing some species could result in collapse, or failure of the ecosystem to provide the services we need.


First Published: Sunday, January 6, 2013 - 10:56

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