Lancaster University

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Unearthing Diversity

04/05/2004 11:57:55

A Lancaster University scientist has embarked upon a three-year mission to chart the diversity of life underground on planet earth.

In an investigation, which has never been attempted before, researchers from both sides of the Atlantic will gather thousands of soil samples from areas ranging from the frozen expanses of the arctic and Antarctic, to humid tropical rainforests. Once the samples are collected they will be tested using DNA probing techniques to see how many different types of microscopic-sized animals are living in the earth.

Biologist Professor Richard Bardgett of Lancaster University is one of the researchers on the $1.2 million US-funded study. He said, although conservationists have charted biodiversity in many areas above-ground, no-one had yet attempted a similar process underground.

Although biologists believe the majority of the earth’s species are probably found underground, forming an important part of the ecosystem, virtually nothing is known about global patterns of species distribution in the earth.

Professor Bardgett said: “Once the study is complete scientists will be able to locate global ‘hotspots’ of soil biodiversity – places on the planet where the variety of life in the earth is exceptionally rich.”

He added: “This study is very important because we need to be able to identify these areas of diversity in order to protect and conserve them. We will also be interested to discover whether these ‘hotspots’ of soil biodiversity below-ground coincide with ‘hotspots’ of rich biodiversity above-ground.”

The research has been funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in America and will be carried out with project leader Professor Diana Wall of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and Dr Jim Garey from the University of South Florida.