Soil's Tiniest Organisms Could Solve Huge Problems
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SOIL'S TINIEST ORGANISMS COULD SOLVE HUGE PROBLEMS
Environment News Service
November 29, 2002
NAIROBI, Kenya, November 29, 2002 (ENS) - There is a wealth of new species
under our feet awaiting discovery, especially in the still unknown portions
of the tropics, which represents "a huge new genetic resource," the top
United Nations environmental agency said today. Amoebas, protozoa,
netatodes, mites, termits, ants, earthworms. Life forms that inhabit the
soil are the least known of all life forms on Earth, and scientists are
discovering that they can profoundly affect planetary patterns.
Calling it "the largest source of untapped life left on Earth," the UN
Environment Programme (UNEP) has announced a new $26 million project to
understand and utilize the life forms underground. It is one of the more
"unusual, curious but absolutely vital projects UNEP has undertaken," said
the agency's executive director Klaus Toepfer as he announced the project
In the hope that this "genetic treasure trove" will yield new drugs,
antibiotics, and industrial products, the project will initially target
"below ground biodiversity" in seven tropical countries - Brazil, Mexico,
Cote d'Ivoire, Uganda, Kenya, Indonesia and India. These countries were
chosen for study are those thought to have the richest below ground
Backed with $9 million funding from the World Bank Group's Global
Environment Facility (GEF) and support from other donors such as the
Rockefeller Foundation, the Conservation and Sustainable Management of
Below-Ground Biodiversity project will catalog and classify "the life forms
below ground" said Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UNEP/GEF Division, based at
UNEP headquarters in Nairobi.
One gram of tropical forest soil may contain up to 40,000 individual
bacterial species, the agency said today, many of which have never been
These miniscule life forms can be as tiny as one-tenth of a millimetre (100
micron). The smallest amoebas are even less than 10 micron in size.
"There is an urgent need to assess, classify and record the life forms below
ground," Djoghlaf said.
Just as increasing intensification of agriculture and clearing of forests
for farmland have taken their toll on wild animals and plants, they place
the microscopic world of underground bacteria and fungi at risk of
extinction and decline in the abundance and numbers of species.
UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said, "The life forms living just
below our feet are the most understudied organisms on the planet. When
people think of where new species might be found, they tend to think of the
rainforests, mangrove swamps or place like mountain peaks, not millimetres
below their toes."
Toepfer said researchers are now realizing that the world's soils,
especially topical soils, are teeming with life. They "harbor more
undescribed species than dwell on the Earth's surface," he said.
Expressing delight at UNEP's involvement in "this pioneering work." Toepfer
said, "Harvesting the secrets of this understudied realm promises huge
benefits and improved knowledge towards the goal of delivering sustainable
development, towards eradicating poverty."
Bacteria and fungi in the soil can clean drinking water sources. They help
eliminate pollutants and germs from groundwater as it percolates through the
soil to reservoirs, boreholes and other freshwaters sources.
Organisms living in the soil also "play a key role in the release of carbon
dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from the land into the
atmosphere," scientists associated with the project said as part of the UNEP
Understanding and unraveling the role of these microscopic creatures in the
carbon cycle may help the land absorb more greenhouse gases to help cool the
Soil-dwelling beneficial life forms may also play a role in reducing crop,
livestock and human diseases, UNEP said today, as they attack and neutralize
plant, animal and human pests and pathogens.
Earthworms, termites and other soil burrowing organisms influence the amount
of rainwater soils can absorb. Soils depleted in such organisms are more
prone to drought and run-off, which in turn increases the risk of flooding
and erosion with consequences for river water and coral reefs.
"We may be losing many important and useful species from the world's soils
without even knowing it," warned Djoghlaf.
The project is coordinated by Mike Swift, director of the Nairobi based
Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Center
for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), one of the research centers in the CGIAR
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an
association of public and private members supporting a system of 16 Future
Harvest Centers, works in more than 100 countries, mobilizing the
"cutting-edge science" that CGIAR says aims to reduce hunger and poverty,
improve human nutrition and health, and protect the environment.
Increasingly, bioengineering and genetic modification of crops underpins
CGIAR's approach to those issues. Still, CIAT has other offerings, among
them a new climate database tool based on 20 years of weather data. The
newly published CD-ROM version 1 of MarkSimTM generates Simulated Weather
Data for Crop Modeling and Risk Assessment.
The Below-Ground Biodiversity Project Guide to "Mini Beasts, Wiggle Worms
and Fellow Soil Dwellers"
Over 4,000 bacteria and related organisms have been described by science, an
unknown number of which are soil dwelling. It is estimated that in one gram
of forest soil there are up to 40,000 individual bacterial species many of
which have never been described.
It is thought that only five percent of the world's living fungi have been
described. Of the 72,000 described species, up to 35,000 could be classed as
Protozoa include amoebas and flagellates. Some 1,900 soil-living protozoa
have been described, which may be only 10 percent of the species alive.
Some 15,000 individual nematode species have been described. It is estimated
that there may be more than be as many as 100,000 species.
The 45,000 described species of spider-like invertebrates known as mites are
thought to represent just five percent of the total.
There are numerous groups of soil-dwelling insects, including termites. More
than 2,000 termite species have been described.
Nearly 9,000 ant species have been described.
Over 3,600 earthworms have been described, and scientists say double this
number may exist in the wild.
Most protozoa eat bacteria, says Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University,
but one group of amoebae eat fungi, the vampyrellids that suck the life out
of their prey.
"The perfectly round holes drilled through the fungal cell wall, much like
the purported puncture marks on the neck of a vampire¹s victim, are evidence
of the presence of vampyrellid amoebae," says Ingham. "The amoebae attach to
the surface of fungal hyphae and generate enzymes that eat through the
fungal cell wall. The amoeba then sucks dry or engulfs the cytoplasm inside
the fungal cell before moving on to its next victim."
Pictures, facts and figures on soil biology and below ground biodiversity
are online at the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural
Resources Conservation Service's Soil Quality Institute, UNEP recommends.
Find it here.
The "Soil Biology Primer" edited by by A.J. Tugel, and A.M. Lewandowski the
source of the photos in this article, is online at:
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