Bringing Soil Biodiversity Into the Light

Soil biodiversity is critical in determining aboveground biodiversity and promoting agricultural success. An interview with Tandra Fraser explores how and why this below-ground science is conducted.

Tandra Fraser collects soil samples from Taylor Valley, Antartica.  Image Credit: Ashley Shaw.

Tandra Fraser collects soil samples from Taylor Valley, Antartica. Image Credit: Ashley Shaw.

“People tend to kind of forget what’s underfoot,” says Tandra Fraser, executive director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) based at Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability. The GSBI is an international push by scientists to get people thinking about the importance of the tiny life forms they don’t see.

Hypsibius dujardini imaged with a scanning electron microscope. Image Credit: Willow Gabriel and Bob Goldstein

Hypsibius dujardini imaged with a scanning electron microscope. Image Credit: Willow Gabriel and Bob Goldstein

Most people, when they consider biodiversity, think of charismatic mega-fauna: rare, brightly colored birds, lions or polar bears. In the world soil biodiversity, there are water bears, or tardigrades (a phylum of microscopic invertebrates capable of surviving in extreme conditions). They may not be a dramatic mammal, but tardigrades, like the polar bear, are inhabitants of changing ecosystems.

“There’s quite a host of threats (to soil biodiversity), and most of it—a lot of it— is human induced,” Fraser explains. “There’s changes in land management, so intensification. There’s urbanization, so expanding cities and paving over soils. There’s desertification from mismanagement of soils …Also, there’s the climate change issue. We don’t really know how soil life will respond to changes in temperature … or more drought or more extreme weather events.”

In terms of microbiology and larger animals that work the soil, like earthworms, soil biodiversity’s response to current changes will have repercussions for humans and other surface dwellers. Soil biodiversity plays a role in food security, erosion prevention and plant diversity.

“Biodiversity above-ground has an effect on below-ground biodiversity and vice versa,” says Fraser. The significance of this interwoven relationship is why Fraser and the other leaders of the GSBI are so keen to increase collaboration in the collection and synthesis of soil biodiversity data.

The GBSI began in 2011, and its mission is to facilitate exchange of scientific knowledge on soil biodiversity. This takes several forms, including: creating a platform for data sharing across the soil biodiversity research community, standardizing collection of data across sites, soil biodiversity working groups (such as urban working groups or education groups), improving public understanding of soil biodiversity, and informing policy actions to promote healthy soil ecosystems.

The first Global Soil Biodiversity Conference was held last December in Dijon, France. The final day of the conference served as a kick-off for the upcoming 2015 International Year of Soils.

Among groups that the GSBI hopes to involve is early career scientists. The GBSI asks them to share ideas for research direction and offers mentorship with more senior researchers in the field. Fraser feels that there is wide opportunity for new researchers to specialize within the field of soil biodiversity.

“It’s really intriguing because there’s so many different things that you can look at. It’s not difficult to make a career out of looking at one small aspect of soil biology and how it affects above-ground productivity.”

Recent developments in technology are part of what allow for this type of research niche. Advancement of genetic sequencing technology, in particular, offers new ways to more precisely investigate soil biodiversity.

Mathew Know collects soil from Taylor Valley, Antartica to quantify soil animals. Photo credit: Tandra Fraser

Mathew Knox collects soil from Taylor Valley, Antartica to quantify soil animals. Photo credit: Tandra Fraser

“It’s becoming more and more common to use DNA or even to look at RNA (of) the more active species,” Fraser says, “sometimes (scientists) just do it for identification, or other times they’ll look at certain … functional genes. It might be a gene that’s important in the nitrogen cycle or important in the breakdown of organic matter—to get an idea of how much of it is in the soil and what genes it is associated with.”

In addition to allowing for classification of species, this type of sequencing offers insight into the role played by different microbes or invertebrates in the soil. It can help researchers understand how changes in soil biodiversity may shift the functioning of the broader soil system.

The hope of the GBSI is that information about soil biodiversity distribution and function can be turned around and put to use in helping create more sustainable management of soils across the globe. The first step, according to Fraser is to assess the current state of soils, “to first figure out where we’re at and how different management processes are changing and to look at what we can do to better manage these soils and get people to care about soil biodiversity.”

As Fraser explains, there are ways to sustain soil biodiversity even within cities, such as adding more green space or planting city gardens, and creating areas where organic matter can be incorporated back into the soil. Public outreach also is likely to play an important role in this process.

Last year, Kelly Ramirez, Fraser’s predecessor at Colorado State University, conducted a soil biodiversity survey in Central Park, New York that garnered press attention from National Public Radio, NBC, and The New York Times. Fraser hopes that other successful opportunities for outreach and education will follow.

The GBSI, and Fraser, have their work cut out for them. But whether the party involved is researchers disseminating data within their community or a public outreach effort, the shared goal is clear “to work as a community, to bring soil biodiversity into the light.”

Topic: