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New law discovered in a hole in a tree


Researchers have discovered a new universal biological law whilst looking in holes in trees near Oxford according to a paper published in the journal Science on 24 June 2005.

The scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and University of Oxford found that patterns of abundance and genetic diversity of microorganisms living in water-filled holes in trees were similar to patterns found in higher animal and plant communities.

The study looked at the relationship between number of species and size of the habitat - one of the oldest patterns in ecology is that the bigger the area the more the species. The scientists investigated if this relationship held true for the world of microorganisms and found, to their surprise, that it did.

Paper author Chris van der Gast from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said: “If microorganisms follow the same laws as plants and animals it will make our job a lot easier. Understanding these relationships has major medical, agriculture and pollution control applications”.

Dr van der Gast went on to say that: “wastewater treatment plants could benefit from this work. At the moment the sludge tanks are a black box – we know the bacteria break down the waste but we don’t really know exactly how it works. If we understand better how these organisms function we can engineer domestic and industrial sewage plants to be more efficient.”

Scientists previously thought that biodiversity at the microbial level was fundamentally different than that for larger organisms, such as plants and mammals.

Dr van der Gast said: “The species-area relationship is used extensively in conservation studies to make decisions on how best to manage biodiversity. For plants and animals the law allows us to estimate population distributions, numbers of individuals and species diversity.”

The team believe that if this law can be applied to the microbial world researchers can improve many key industrial processes that make use of microorganisms.

Dr van der Gast added: “Microbial communities are vitally important. For example, they help to promote plant growth and protect plants against disease, as well as cleaning up pollution. By knowing the laws that govern natural communities of microbes we can decide whether or not to intervene when pollution occurs.”

Owen Gaffney | alfa
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