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A Whole Universe Beneath Our Feet

A Whole Universe Beneath Our Feet

 

Plants nurture a whole world of creatures in the soil that in return feed and protect the plants, including and especially trees. It is a subterranean community that includes worms, insects, mites, other arthropods you’ve never heard of, amoebas, and fellow protozoa. The dominant organisms are bacteria and fungi. All these players work together, sometimes by eating one another. This cosmos is only now revealing itself as a result of scientific discoveries based on better microscopic imaging and DNA analysis. There is much still to learn, but it boils down to this: Plants nurture a whole world of creatures in the soil that in return feed and protect the plants, including and especially trees. It is a subterranean community that includes worms, insects, mites, other arthropods you’ve never heard of, amoebas, and fellow protozoa. The dominant organisms are bacteria and fungi. All these players work together, sometimes by eating one another.

This is, basically, how it works: Plants manufacture carbohydrates through photosynthesis, but not just for themselves. They release some of their carbon sugars into the soil, which causes the bacteria and fungi to show up to feed. The bacteria crowd around the root zone, and the fungi form vast networks of interlocking strands that often link one plant to another. The bacteria convert nitrogen and other nutrients into forms the plants can use, often by getting devoured by other microbes.

Although some plant (and human) diseases are caused by soil-borne fungi and bacteria, most of these microbes are beneficial and keep the bad ones in check. The organisms assist in other ways, by increasing the size of soil particles, which improves the ability of the soil to hold water and air. Even in the middle of a city, the subterranean world is thriving. Scientists took almost 600 soil samples from across New York’s Central Park and discovered a surprising diversity and richness. They identified more than 120,000 types of bacteria and more than 40,000 species of fungi, protozoa and arthropods.

Diagram of the nutrient cycle
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