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Scientists from Rothamsted Research are using new methods to study soil biodiversity, to understand its importance and what previously undiscovered organisms it may contain. Minibeasts in soil can be seen by eye, but it is much harder to view the microbes: millions of these can be found in just one teaspoon of soil and their diversity vastly exceeds that found in the canopies of tropical rain forests.

Soil organisms provide nutrients for plants and food crops but also provide us with clean air and water. Until the advent of metagenomic technologies, scientists were unable to detect the majority of soil microbes, which cannot be cultured in the lab. Researchers are using these new methods to understand how climate and farming can affect the soil system and how to ensure its sustainability. They may also uncover new genes with pharmaceutical or biotechnological uses.

“Studying the vast complexity of soil life is a daunting task but we’re using the most advanced modern techniques to understand how soil works and how we can manage it to maintain and optimise its performance,” says Dr. Penny Hirsch, Rothamsted Research.

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to examine soil invertebrates with microscopes, find out how to identify organisms by comparing DNA sequences to a database, and learn about their role in the soil ecosystem.

Exhibited by BBSRC Institutes: Rothamsted Research; John Innes Centre.

See all exhibits from 2010