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Soil Sifters


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The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institutes Panama site.

A research collaboration that started at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is piecing together part how soil microbes process chemicals, using supercomputers to analyze high-throughput sequencing datasets of genes and proteins.

Credit: Melanie Mayes/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Microbes are mighty. Diverse communities of these single-celled organisms can have far-reaching effects in larger systems including soil, the human body and global climate.

But scientists still have a lot to learn about how these communities work. A research collaboration that started at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is piecing together part of that puzzle: how soil microbes process chemicals. The work is made possible by supercomputers used to analyze high-throughput sequencing data sets of genes and proteins. The team's results could lead to approaches that improve how next-generation global climate models represent key microbial functions.

ORNL environmental scientist Melanie Mayes began her career working on soil contamination, but a decade ago a project studying dissolved organic carbon led her to think about climate. Soil carbon is a major contributor to global carbon totals; microbes constantly burp out the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane as they process decaying leaves, roots and other debris. But most of today's terrestrial climate models overly simplify these soil carbon processes, Mayes says.

"Global climate models might incorporate soil decay data from laboratory experiments or even small field experiments," she says. But that information is incomplete and lacks detail on microbial processes. "That reservoir is larger than the atmosphere and all of the above-ground biomass combined. And so if you can't quantify that very well, it can impact predictions."

 

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