TREE is happy to share the following guest blog from two New College of Florida researchers.
Caring for life’s little things: Why we need to understand and protect microbes in our soils
By Ky Miller and Dr. Erika Díaz-Almeyda
Chock full of billions of ancient and microscopic living organisms, soil is one of our planet’s most dynamic and vital natural resources. Scientists have estimated that there are more microbial species on Earth than stars in the sky. Each plays a crucial role in maintaining human health and the health of the planet’s ecosystems.
But these microbes don’t act alone: they are involved in a complex dance of energy transfer across species ranging from bacteria to nematodes. A collection of microorganisms in a given environment creates what we call a “microbiome,” and the interactions of all of these organisms make up a complex “soil food web.” The soil food web aids in cycling nutrients, suppressing disease-causing organisms, supporting decay of toxic materials, and building up soil structure so oxygen and water can more easily filter through the ground. These functions of the soil microbiome not only promote broader ecosystem health and diversity, but also have innumerable benefits to humans. A healthy soil microbiome allows plants to uptake soil nutrients and aids in disease resistance, which supports agriculture and lessens the need for fertilizer use and disease treatment. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from the soil. Without healthy soil, we can’t grow healthy foods.
But the microbiome is so much more than the services it provides: it is an ancient heritage that serves as the foundation for all other life on Earth, including animal and human life. Humans have inherited an incredible diversity of life that has been formed across eons of history, and now, without proper environmental stewardship, we risk losing it. Much in the way human activities can drastically alter ecosystems visible to the human eye, so too can they alter the microbiome—and this vital soil ecosystem is under threat. Scientists estimate that if humans continue to degrade the Earth’s soils through deforestation and using chemical-heavy farming practices, which cause the loss of 30 soccer fields’ worth of soil a minute, all of the Earth’s topsoil will be gone in just 60 years.
At the same time, ecosystem restoration projects that rebuild soil like tree planting require a matching microbial community or they risk failure. Planting native species—species that have co-evolved with the soil microbes in a given ecosystem—is an essential piece of the restoration puzzle. In the state of Florida and across the globe, scientists are calling for a broader recognition of the foundational role that the microbiome plays in biodiversity conservation and land management. Without the proper microbial species in the soil, every other part of the ecosystem cannot thrive. To save the world, we need to build from the ground up.
Ky Miller is a junior environmental consultant at Stocking Savvy, LLC., Florida Microbiome Project science communications writer, Princeton in Latin America Fellow, and 2021 New College of Florida alumna who aims to support conservation, restoration, and environmental education efforts across Florida and in Latin America. Ky’s work has been informed by her Environmental Studies and Anthropology concentrations at New College and has ranged from an exploration of COVID-19’s impacts on conservation organizations across Costa Rica and Panamá, to terrestrial and wetland habitat restoration efforts in Sarasota, to her current collaboration with Dr. Erika Díaz-Almeyda analyzing microbial community composition in the Myakka River Watershed.
Dr. Erika Díaz-Almeyda is a microbial ecologist with research interests at the nexus of symbiosis, climate change, and Indigenous and sustainable practices. Dr. Díaz-Almeyda studies how host-associated microbiota are affected by climate change, and the relationships between microbial diversity and land/water management. Her projects are embedded in frameworks of community- and place-based research to advance social equity by including local stakeholders, particularly in Indigenous and sustainable managers.