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Healthy Soil Key to Crops, Climate Change


James Tiedje, a Michigan State University Distinguished Professor and the director of the MSU Center for Microbial Ecology has been unlocking soil’s secrets for four decades, pioneering the development of new technologies and analysis techniques, broadening the scope of understanding for scientists everywhere.

MSU researchers, including Tiedje, led the largest soil DNA sequencing effort to date, collaborating with scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “In the ‘90s, it would take us almost four years to sequence one gene in a microbe,” Tiedje said. “Now we can sequence billions of base pairs a day.”

Greatest Frontier in Biology

Tiedje calls soil microbiology the greatest frontier in all of biology because it is the most complex, diverse and unknown. Over nearly 3 billion years, microbial evolution has resulted in extremely high genetic diversity in soils. DNA sequencing efforts have decoded some of the mysteries, but scientists are just scratching the surface of identifying and understanding soil microbes and their impacts on agricultural production, the environment, biotechnology and medicine.

“No one knows how many species of bacteria there are,” Tiedje said. “Any particular gram of soil has about 1 billion bacteria, but no more than 0.1 percent of those microbes would be previously known.”

Role in Climate Change

In addition to pinpointing its effect on promoting healthy vegetation, experts are studying how soil plays a part in climate change. A group of MSU researchers is part of a consortium studying warming sites in Alaska and Oklahoma, looking into the soil microbes’ response to an increase in temperature.

“There’s so much carbon in the permafrost in the Arctic and some of the permafrost is melting, so the microbes take over and convert that carbon to carbon dioxide and, in wet areas, to methane,” Tiedje said.

“Our major goals are to learn about the temperature sensitivity of microbes using these DNA approaches, and whether their activity has an amplifying or moderating effect on the projected rate of climate warming.”

– excerpted from AgBioResearch, “Getting the Scoop on Soil,” Futures (Spring/Summer 2015), page 5.

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