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Soil's Tiniest Organisms Could Solve Huge Problems

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 747 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... SOIL S TINIEST ORGANISMS COULD SOLVE HUGE PROBLEMS
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2002
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      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
      statement today.

      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
      agricultural network.

      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
      soil living.

      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 vampireĀ¹s 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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