My vision on belowground ecology
Some weeks ago, the online conference Ecology Underground 2020 called for vision papers from early career researchers. The question was to write a short essay (< 300 words) on how the future of belowground ecology could or should look like. I participated, but was not one of the lucky winners. But luckily I have a blog, so I can still get my word out there. As so often with these kinds of competitions, you do not get a lot of feedback. I can imagine that they received a bunch of good essays. Also, I am not too happy about my use of the dictionary metaphor. That one is probably sucked dry already, but it just hits the nail.
My Vision for Belowground Ecology
When looking at plants, it is easy to forget that what we see above-ground is just a small fraction of what is actually happening in the whole system. Putting on your soil-ecology-goggles, you stop seeing “just plants”. You start to see its connection with a myriad of soil life, mainly consisting of bacteria, fungi, and insects. Once you know that the biomass of all living organisms in one acre of soil easily outweighs a truck, you realize that what happens belowground is one of the most complex matrixes on Earth. Luckily, we now have sophisticated tools to unravel some of those mysteries. One of the most proficient techniques is found in the fields of metagenomics. As little as one gram of soil provides us with a few Gigabytes of data that can be translated into a phylogenetic tree. We know in great detail what is actually living belowground, but what about its functions? Current metagenomic is similar to the phone dictionary of a big city. The names of most people are already known in this city. My vision for belowground ecology is to turn a regular phone book into the Yellow Pages by using functional metagenomics. That way, we know the occupation of each person in the phone book. But why stop there? Why not expand our understanding to the level of belowground communication? Let’s see who’s messaging whom! Do microbes have privacy rights? I hope not, because I want to know everything about their social behaviour. By hijacking the Facebook community below our feet, we will be able to improve our understanding of ecological restoration and increase sustainability in agriculture. I hope that by including soil microbes into our future equations, we can minimize the footprint we leave behind on this Earth.