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Groundbreaking research in Scotland


A £5.85 million pound study of the soil in the Cheviot Hills has finally come to an end, producing a huge wealth of new information for scientists.

“I suspect we know more about the biodiversity of this one field at Sourhope than any other soil on this planet,” said Professor Michael Usher, the chairman of the Soil Biodiversity Programme steering committee.

The seven-year study, involving 120 scientists and the largest of its kind in the world, aims to improve knowledge of soil biodiversity and the carbon cycle - a key to understanding climate change.

Scientist Nick Ostle, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster, who worked on the project said: ‘We now understand much more about the way carbon compounds move through the soil. For instance, we have learned that carbon taken in by plants as carbon dioxide is rapidly transferred, within hours, to the soil as food for other organisms.‘

‘This creates hotspots of biological activity in the root systems,’ added Dr Ostle. ‘A mass of microbes, bacteria, mites and fungi descend upon the plant’s root systems to feed.”

Soil organisms break down pollutants, recycle nutrients and consume trace gases that regulate climate. This survey also tells scientists how pollution affects these organisms.

There have been many more discoveries and the team has developed new research methods that can be applied across the world, for example new ways of tracking carbon through the food chain until it appears back in the atmosphere.

‘We can tag micro-organisms using stable isotope tracers so we can determine their role in the carbon cycle. Soil is an important global reservoir of carbon - soil biology regulates this stock and biodiversity affects how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere,’ said Dr Ostle.

Where carbon has been and where carbon is going is important to scientists. It allows them to predict climate change more accurately.

The research, part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s soil biodiversity programme, will be discussed at an open meeting on Wednesday 31st of March at the Royal Society in Edinburgh. The talks will also include work carried out by the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department funded Micronet programme that carried out complementary work on biodiversity on the same plot of land.

Leading scientists in the field will talk about the impact of their work followed by discussions on the issues raised.

Marion O’Sullivan | NERC
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