What do worm feaces, laser technology, soil from a Kansas prairie and fungi have in common? They are all part of a new £6 million Soil Biodiversity Program launched this week during the Edinburgh International Science Festival.
The program, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), aims to discover more about the lives of microbes and thousands of other soil dwelling creatures, their links with plant growth and their responses to environmental pressures. "If you stand on a piece of grassland in the UK you have about two thousand species beneath your feet - and those are just the ones we know about," says Professor Michael Usher, Chairman of the Soil Biodiversity Programme Steering Committee, and Chief Scientist at Scottish Natural Heritage in Edinburgh. "The soil is like a poor man's rainforest. At first glance it might not look as spectacular, but it contains a vast and diverse range of important organisms, many of which have been poorly studied. We know that soil organisms have a vital role in many major chemical processes, such as the cycling of carbon and nitrogen, but there are huge gaps in our knowledge concerning the links between the diversity of organisms and the functions of complex and interdependent food webs," continues Professor Usher. "With the land under pressure from pollution, climate change and intensive agriculture, it is imperative to close some of those gaps. We need to get a better idea of the current and possible future impacts of these kind of pressures on the health of the soil, which after all, is the basis of the variety of terrestrial habitats - from peat bogs to woodland, pasture to heathland, agricultural soils to sand dunes. Technological advances in recent years, particularly in molecular techniques, have given us the means to unearth valuable new information," adds Professor Usher.
The five-year Soil Biodiversity Programme will involve scientists from around 30 organisations, including NERC Institutes and universities in Scotland, England and Wales. Seventeen research grants have already been awarded. The scientists will study a wide range of organisms from bacteria and fungi to microscopic insects and mites, nematode worms and earthworms. There will be novel approaches to the work, including the use of micro meshes (used in biotechnology), to help identify different types of mycorrizhal fungi. These fungi benefit plants by extracting otherwise inaccessible nutrients from the soil, making them available to plant roots.
The soil is often largely composed of faeces from different organisms. A special type of laser 'gun' will be used to help scientists identify these faeces to improve our understanding of how the soil is made, and to produce a better picture of the diversity and the food webs within the soil. Other researchers will use a specific type of carbon present in plants from a Kansas prairie as a 'marker' in studies which will improve our knowledge of the carbon cycle in the soil.
Much of the field research will be carried out at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute's Sourhope Research Station in the Cheviot Hills, in the Scottish Borders. This will be complemented by research on a simulated grassland ecosystem recreated in the innovative Ecotron laboratory at NERC's Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College, Ascot, Berks.