14 August 2013

Researchers show the vital role that soil biodiversity and the tiny organisms that create our “living soil” could play in combatting climate change

Research by scientists at the universities of Lancaster and Manchester shows maintaining healthy soil biodiversity can play an important role in optimising land management programmes to reduce carbon emissions.

The findings, published in the latest edition of the journal PNAS, extend the understanding about the factors that regulate soil biodiversity and show for the first time that there is a strong link between soil organisms and the overall functioning of ecosystems.

In one of the largest studies of its kind researchers from across Europe looked at soil life in 60 sites across four countries, the UK, Sweden, Greece and the Czech Republic, to assess the role of soil food webs in nutrient cycles in agricultural soils.

Soil food webs describe the community of organisms living all or part of their lives in the soil, their complex living system and how they interact with other substances in the soil such as carbon and nitrogen.

Until now most studies which have investigated the reduction of soil biodiversity and how this affects carbon and nitrogen cycling have been laboratory-based or focused on one group of organisms in the soil rather than the wider picture. This is the first time researchers have looked at the entire community of organisms.

The team studied the soil in various forms of land use, including intensive wheat rotation farming and permanent grassland. It found there were consistent links between soil organisms and soil food web properties and ecosystem functioning on a large scale, across European countries.

The world beneath our feet

Lead author Dr Franciska De vries, who carried out the research while at the Lancaster Environment Centre, said: “We found that the condition of the soil was less tied to how the land was used and more influenced by the soil food web properties.

“Soils contain a vast diversity of organisms which are crucially important for humans. These organisms help capture carbon dioxide (CO2) which is crucial for helping to reduce global warming and climate change.

“This research highlights the importance of soil organisms and demonstrates that there is a whole world beneath our feet, inhabited by small creatures that we can’t even see most of the time. By liberating nitrogen for plant growth and locking up carbon in the soil they play an important role in supporting life on Earth.”

Improving land management

The researchers hope the findings will help in predicting how land use and climate change will impact on ecosystems and in looking at ways to minimise negative changes.

Dr De vries, now at The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “Soil biodiversity is under threat by a range of pressures such as urbanisation, climate change, pollution and expanding production of food, fibre and biofuel but the topic remains severely understudied.

“We hope that this research will, in the longer term, help us to devise ways for farmers, landowners and conservation agencies to optimise the way they manage land to reap benefits from the living soil and reduce carbon emissions.”