DNA to reveal secrets of WA soil

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

It's the most abundant, diverse lifeform on the planet yet scientists know little about it - until now.

A groundbreaking new research project, involving both world renowned scientists and everyday West Australians, is set to map life underground using DNA sequencing to reveal the details of WA's soil microbes.

Called MicroBlitz, the project will run over four years with the ultimate aim of producing a map that outlines the abundance and distribution of groups of microbes.

Project manager Deborah Bowie said soil microbes were one of the most important aspects of the environment, but it was something that most people did not think about.

"We have some ideas about the influences they have," she said.

"They carry out really important work in terms of soil health below ground and that feeds into health and diversity above ground.

"We all know WA is a biodiversity hotspot above ground, but is it the same below ground?"

The project is headed by Winthrop professor Andrew Whiteley, who recently completed a similar survey in the UK that revealed land formation and soil pH were key determining factors of the type and abundance of microbial life.

The leading scientist was able to join the team at the University of WA after the project received funding from the prestigious State Government's Premier's Research Fellowships Program.

But rather than using a host of researchers to travel across the State and bring back soil samples, MicroBlitz is using citizen scientists to do the grunt work.

Anyone can apply to receive a kit to obtain a soil sample, which will then be DNA sequenced in a laboratory and ultimately give them information about the below ground life in their own backyard. The aim is to get as many samples as possible from diverse locations.

WA is set to be only the second wide-scale survey site of microbial life and it's the only time citizen scientists have been used in a project like this.

Preliminary discussions with schools, community groups, farmers and natural resource management groups have uncovered a lot of interest in the work the team is carrying out.

Interest in below-ground biodiversity is growing, particularly in agricultural circles where the links between microbes, soil health and fertility could provide important clues about how productivity can be achieved sustainably.

Research like MicroBlitz could provide the starting point to find new ways to grow profitable crops in WA's relatively infertile soil and drying climate.

Ms Bowie said farmers, in particular, had shown strong interest in sending in soil samples from different farm areas for comparison.

"Some of those (agricultural) processes carried out may have a detrimental effect," Ms Bowie said.

"By mapping this we are getting a base line - this is new information.

"In terms of the agricultural sector, the more informed we are the less risks we have to take in terms of trialling new techniques."

Ms Bowie estimated the team already had between 1000 and 2000 samples organised from the top of the State at Kununurra south to Esperance. But more were wanted and the team has put out a call to arms for more citizen scientists to sign up.

Soil samples are expected to start flowing through laboratories in the second half of the year, once kits have been sent out.

For more information, or to become involved in MicroBlitz, email Deborah Bowie at deborah.bowie@uwa.edu.au .

Fast facts *

·One footprint in the soil covers an estimated 10 trillion bacterial organisms, made up of tens of thousands of different species of bacteria

·There are more bacteria on our planet than stars in the known universe

·In 2009, DNA sequencing a sample cost $100, as of last year it cost $10.

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