Unveiling the Underworld, Understanding Earth

Nov 28, 2014 11:18 AM EST

Researchers are arguing that if we want to better understand the world's ecosystems function, we're going to have to do some digging. That's at least according to a new paper, which suggests that some of the most essential life on Earth can be found underground.

Past research has argued that the oceans' ecosystems, still barely understood in terms of diversity and expanse, are the most important part of our planet's stunning web of life. However, a paper recently published in the journal Nature offers a different theory: that the sheer diversity of barely-understood life living just below our feet is the most important, as it has far-reaching impacts on both ecosystems and human land management.

"The soil beneath our feet arguably represents the most diverse place on Earth. Soil communities are extremely complex with literally millions of species and billions of individual organisms within a single grassland or forest, ranging from microscopic bacteria and fungi through to larger organisms such as earthworms, ants and moles," researcher Richard Bardgett, from the University of Manchester, explained in a statement.

"Despite this plethora of life the underground world had been largely neglected by research," he said. "It certainly used to be a case of out of sight out of mind." (Scroll to read on...)

However, Bardgett and study co-author Professor Wim van der Putten of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology are encouraged by recent work on this essential subject.

"An increasing number of studies show that above-ground pest control is influenced by organisms in the soil," van der Putten provided as an example. "This supports the view that a healthy crop requires healthy soil."

The researchers worked to combine a host of recent research into one comprehensive overview, detailing how far we've come in understanding the underworld, and how much more we have left to learn.

"One of the key areas for future research will be to integrate what has been learnt about soil diversity into decisions about sustainable land management," added Bardgett. "There is an urgent need for new approaches to the maintenance and enhancement of soil fertility for food, feed and biomass production, the prevention of human disease and tackling climate change. As we highlight in this paper, a new age of research is needed to meet these scientific challenges."

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