International Year of Soils


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This year is the Food and Agriculture Organisation's International Year of Soils.

Adam Rutherford, ably assisted by Manchester University's Richard Bardgett, takes a look at new research seeking to further our understanding of soil behaviour that determines much of our existence.

A handful of soil contains many tens of thousands of different species of microbial life, all competing to the death with each other for nutrients and resources. Yet most of those species are very poorly understood, because hitherto scientists have only been able to grow a small percentage of them in the lab.

Last week's announcement of a new class of antibiotic - teixobactin - owes a lot to soil; Two buckets of it from the back garden of one of the researchers.

Kim Lewis of Northeastern University in the US describes the new technique that could open up the whole biodiversity of a clump of soil to future medicines.

Meanwhile, Monsanto, Novozyme and Morrone Bio in the US are just some of the big agricultural corporations exploring what useful microbes could be spread on seeds and crops to increase yields and reduce the needs for fertilizers.

Soils, apart from feeding us and helping us fight disease, also have a crucial regulatory role in our climate.

Sue Nelson reports on a new soil moisture monitoring network being set up in the UK that uses cosmic rays to measure the water content. The Cosmic-ray Soil Moisture Observing System, COSMOS-UK, is being set up by the CEH, based out of Edinburgh.

On a global scale, soils are a hugely important reservoir of carbon. Iain Hartley of the University of Exeter talks about the vast amounts of carbon - more than all the carbon in all the trees and air - held in frozen soils in the far northern reaches of the earth. If these vast plains of permafrost were to melt in a warming world, the positive feedback loop caused by the resulting methane and CO2 released could be a bigger problem than many of our climate models allow for.

But could we manage the soils beneath our feet better?

David Manning of Newcastle University suggests that minerals could be added to brownfield (urban) soils to help them capture and sequester staggering amounts of CO2 from the air to help us offset anthropogenic emissions.

Producer Adrian Washbourne.