Washington: Biologists have unlocked the "black box" to the underground world home to billions of microscopic creatures.

"The organisms that live in soil do all kinds of important things for us – they decompose and decontaminate our waste and toxic chemicals, purify our water, prevent erosion, renew fertility," professor of biology at Brigham Young University and study co-author Byron Adams said.

The study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has explained how the number of species in an ecosystem changes the way it functions.

"But we know very little about how they do this. What species need to be present? What are the different jobs that we need them to do?" Adams said. Adams and his colleagues took 16 soil samples from all parts of the world, from Antarctica to tropical forest locations, extracted the DNA out of all the organisms in each sample, and sequenced it.

With information about the genome (the complete set of its DNA and all of its genes) of each microbe in the soil, the researchers were able to see which organisms do what, and whether or not their functional roles are redundant or unique.

The study reveals that microbes function very differently based on their environment, and more the number of species you get they perform all the more different functions. On the other hand, in ecosystems like deserts, where there are few species and even fewer jobs, removing some species could result in collapse, or failure of the ecosystem to provide the services we need, the researchers said.

"The most obvious applications of this understanding will probably be in agricultural ecosystems," Adams said. The study found that a better understanding of below-ground ecosystems can help humans predict how those systems will respond to things such as climate change or perturbations to the soil from mining, drilling or waste, which could further prevent environmental catastrophes.


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