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Underground life offers new frontier of explorationUnderground life offers new frontier of exploration

Scientists are just now discovering a whole new world beneath our feet and researchers are anxious to learn and publicize the unique relationships between the organisms in the ground and how they work together with the aboveground ecosystem.

December 13, 2011

5 Min Read

Step outside and take a look around you. What do you see; what do you feel? The sun shining on your face and the breeze you feel on your skin are both components that make up our ecosystem, and scientists have been studying how the organisms in this community interact with and affect each other for years.

But, what about the environment that is below the earth we walk on, which is less discernable to our senses?

Scientists are just now discovering a whole new world beneath our feet and New Mexico State University researchers are anxious to learn and publicize the unique relationships between the organisms in the ground and how they work together with the aboveground ecosystem.

With a $240,000 grant from the National Park Service, researchers in the fields of microbial ecology, molecular biology, nematology and soil sciences hope to bring to light this little-studied area of science. The majority of research is being conducted at the White Sands National Monument and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

"This is like exploring a whole new frontier," said Mary Lucero, a molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Jornada Experimental Range. "We are seeing things that no one has looked at before. It is very exciting."

The grant is broken down into two components — research on the belowground ecosystem and study of carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide.

"There are two drivers to the big picture of this research," said Curtis Monger, a professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. "The first goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Since that time, we have put a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. Now, we are looking to see how we can bring that back down.

Everyone knows that it can be brought down through trees, but now we are looking at bringing it down and storing it in other materials — like crystals in the soil. Secondly, there really is a mineralogical beauty associated with this research. We want to bring out that beauty, in addition to all the number-crunching science."

Essentially, the Industrial Revolution saw the replacement of muscle power with machine power driven by burning fossil fuels - first with the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine. People were burning coal, petroleum and natural gas - all of which put carbon dioxide into the air.

Monger is researching the biomineralization of the carbonate in soil to understand the process of how microorganisms make crystals in which carbon dioxide can be stored.

While Monger studies the mineral side of carbon dioxide, Lucero and Adrian Unc, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, are working to identify the kinds of microorganisms that are involved.

Microbes and soil organisms

Lucero's emphasis is on the microbes that live within plants. Using the image of the famous General Sherman, a giant sequoia tree at Sequoia National Park, to illustrate her point, Lucero said, "General Sherman is not just a plant, but a plant bound to about 100,000 different species of microorganisms." The roles most of these microbes play in driving plant growth have not been described.

"What we do know about the microbes that associate with the plant is that they play a crucial role in nutrient cycling, pest resistance, disease prevention and overall adaptation," she said.

Personnel at national parks are charged with protecting natural resources, indigenous plants and indigenous microbes, but with 100,000 microbes being associated with a single plant, and millions more associated with the surrounding soil, many of these microbes have not even been looked at yet.

"At this point, our goal is just to describe all of this diversity because at this moment, we don't really know what's there," Lucero said. "It's like we have discovered a whole new world or galaxy. We have to describe it first, then decide what needs to be protected, what needs to be managed and what needs to be left alone. The technologies available for describing microbial communities are really hitting exponential growth."

Unc is studying the different ways carbon can be taken from the atmosphere and cycled through the belowground ecosystem.

Autotrophs are anything able to photosynthesize and they are the pumps removing the carbon from the air and putting it into the ground. An entire trophic chain is created when the carbon is absorbed into the ground.  Organisms begin to take advantage of the organic material there.

"The most common soil organisms are bacteria and fungi; they are staging the conditions for nutrient cycling for all other organisms," Unc said. "Arthropods and nematodes are consumers and they are very important because they are working as recyclers of nutrients in the system. If there were no consumers then there would be live and dead tissue with nothing to consume them. The carbon and nitrogen would probably demineralize, but very slowly. Having these larger organisms really accelerates the cycle and releases the nitrogen to be put back into circulation in the atmosphere."

Steve Thomas, a professor in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science, said the nematodes are a key component to this collaborative research.

"The nematodes are looking for carbon," Thomas said. "They have to get all of their energy from living material. A nematode cannot eat anything that is dead and get any benefit from it. So, they eat the bacteria that are breaking down dead organic matter in soil to get the carbon-containing molecules they need for energy and growth."

Except for carbon, almost everything else the nematode digests from the bacteria, the nematode has no use for, and excretes back into the soil, Thomas said. These mineralized nutrients are available to plants and other organisms to pick up and reuse.

Working with Holly Risner and David Bustos, with White Sands; and Jonena Hearst, at Guadalupe Mountains; the NMSU and USDA Natural

Resources Conservation Service scientists are conducting the majority of their work at White Sands because it is a great natural laboratory for conducting research and according to statistics from the National Park Service, this monument receives the most visitors annually than any other park service location in the state.

Once real data is available to show to the public, this information can help draw more people to White Sands to learn about the fascinating ecosystems around us, whether they are seen or unseen.

Monger said the goal is to have real data and evidence to present to the public by the middle of 2012. The grant runs through 2013.

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