The secret to saving our planet may be lurking under our feet

for all the attention we pay our human microbiome, we continue to neglect Earth’s microbes, according to a new scientific paper, and the consequences could be devastating for our planet.

“Microbial life was the first to inhabit our planet and will likely be the last,” the study authors write in the article. The findings were published Monday in the journal microbiology of nature.

The context you need — You’ve probably heard of the gut microbiome, which encompasses all the bacteria and other tiny critters that scurry around our digestive tracts and affect our overall health.

Similarly, the Earth’s microbiome includes all microscopic organisms, such as viruses and fungi, on our planet, but especially in our soil. Earth’s microbes play vital roles, from mitigating disease transmission to regulating greenhouse gases and nutrients.

Agricultural land development and nitrogen pollution have been linked to a 45 percent decline in European mycorrhizal fungi, which are soil-borne fungi that attach to plant roots. These root fungi help plants absorb nutrients and water as they grow. Modern developments, such as changes in agriculture and animal husbandry, lead to the homogenization of soil microbes.

A figure from the study highlights three different ways to preserve microbial diversity. Averill and others

Homogenization of soil microbes leads to a decrease in both the total number of microbial species and their diversity. In other words, the microbes that make “microbiologically and functionally distinct geographic locations” are on the decline, according to the article.

In this study, researchers analyzed 80 scientific experiments to conclude how the diversity of Earth’s microbiomes benefits the planet and highlighted the three crucial ways we need to protect these microbes from extinction to safeguard our future.

Conserving Earth’s Microbes

What they found – Scientists use their data to make the case for three different ways to preserve Earth’s microbes.

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“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” the researchers write in the new study. In recent years, scientists have used DNA sequencing to develop genetic databases on microbial life on Earth. The researchers in the Nature The article proposes three ways to guide these measurements and help us conserve microbial life.

First: Expand the geographic coverage of microbiome monitoring to “less disturbed regions that are the last bastions of biodiversity.”

Highly biodiverse areas of Earth that have not been devastated by human activities may harbor unique microbes and we must take steps to monitor them. According to the paper’s analysis of 10,000 observations from the Global Fungal Database, there are “clear and persistent gaps” in microbial monitoring in Africa, the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and high latitudes in Canada and Russia.

Second: These surveys of the microbiome need to be repeated over time, especially in places where we are now rapidly losing biodiversity, such as mycorrhizal fungi in Europe.

Third: Scientists must share their data transparently on open access platforms so that threats to microbial diversity can be identified by researchers from all fields.

Since most of these microbes are underground, we can’t monitor them using aircraft or satellite technology, so researchers around the world will need to take a “decentralized” approach to figure out the best way to monitor microbes in their region. The African Microbiome Initiative, the European LUCAS Soil Survey, and the Chinese Soil Microbiome Initiative are some different regional approaches.

The researchers recommend several steps forward in microbial conservation, such as expanding the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to include microbes, as well as adopting “no-tillage” farming methods that can preserve soil microbes.

Restore Earth’s Microbes

In recent years, we’ve seen a boom in ecosystem restoration efforts, from the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration to tree-planting programs and “30 by 30” initiatives to set aside 30 percent of Earth’s land for restoration by 2030. Now, researchers are proposing that we undertake similar restoration efforts for Earth’s overlooked microbes.

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“However, when we restore ecosystems, for example by planting trees, we rarely think about ‘planting’ the associated microbiome,” the researchers write.

Soil transplants, which involve moving microbes from one soil community to another, could be a low-tech approach to restoring microbes in another ecosystem, according to the article. the Nature The report summarizes previous research, ranging from restored grasslands in the American Midwest to the reintroduction of fungi in Hawaii, to highlight how soil transplants can not only produce more microbially diverse communities, but also restore entire ecosystems.

Research in Finland found that reintroducing fungi to decaying logs enhanced fungal growth.Getty

According to the researchers’ analysis of previous studies, reintroducing wild microbes stimulated plant growth by an average of 64%, but in some places, the benefit was a whopping 700% growth. However, the scientists also warn that such restoration will not be “universally successful” and depends on location-specific factors. Soil transplants also require digging up the soil, which can actually destroy microbial communities.

“It would be incredibly valuable to develop ways to introduce wild microbial communities without destructively digging up the soil,” the study authors write.

Managing Earth’s Microbes

The researchers’ final recommendation refers to “managed” landscapes, such as agricultural and forest ecosystems, which make up about half of the Earth’s land area. As a result of the Green Revolution in the 20th century, farmers were able to maximize efficiency in crop production to feed an ever-growing population.

But such methods also created monocultures: large-scale plantations of a single crop, such as corn or apples. Due to their low genetic diversity, monoculture systems are more vulnerable to the ravages of climate change and degrade soil quality. As a result, science-based startups are trying to improve the climate resilience of managed landscapes by applying large numbers of a single species of fungus to farmland.

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The researchers call these efforts a “missed opportunity” to improve the overall microbial diversity of farmland. Instead, we should be looking at approaches like Japan’s “Effective Microorganisms” initiative, which aims to build a diverse portfolio of locally sourced bacteria, as opposed to non-native species, and yeast to improve crop production. Basically, you grow these native microbes in a culture and then apply them as a solution to plants or soil.

The researchers believe this approach can help farmers maximize higher crop production while preserving microbial diversity in these local ecosystems, but they also stress that a “healthy” soil microbiome will vary by ecosystem.

Why does it matter? According to the new research, “Current trends suggest that more than 90% of Earth’s soil will experience significant erosion by 2050.”

Conservationists and scientists who focus on solutions to the soil or climate crisis without including microbes are overlooking an integral function of ecosystems. The researchers cite an example of microbial restoration in Finland, where scientists reintroduced threatened fungal species to decaying logs, thereby promoting fungal growth. Similarly, the researchers found that reintroducing mycorrhizal fungi enhances vegetation growth in previously barren mine landscapes in Estonia.

By harnessing the biodiversity of microbial life, the researchers argue we can add another tool in our fight to build healthier and more ecologically resilient ecosystems.

Whats Next – To that end, the researchers first call for better global monitoring of microbes on a scientific scale never before seen.

They also say that scientists should integrate this new microbial data into existing ecosystem conservation and restoration efforts.

Ultimately, we can apply our knowledge of microbial restoration to maximize growth and biodiversity in managed landscapes like farms and forests, ultimately helping us feed a growing world population. The future can still be hopeful, as long as there are more microbes in it.

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