08.05.2024 | Unlocking biodiversity data from below the ground

Why soils are a data treasure chest for understanding ecosystem health

By Dr. Hannah Schragmann , 08.05.2024

Since the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was adopted in 2022, biodiversity and ecosystem health has finally been starting to receive the attention it deserves. However, when measuring progress in biodiversity, the methods used often mostly rely on remote sensing: This means we are looking at ecosystems from above and assess their health based on the parameters we can see from space. We look at canopy density, at spatial parameters, at land management changes – and when it comes to soil, maybe at colour or structure.

But this way, we overlook two points: First, our soils constitute the basis for all above ground biodiversity, making them an integral pillar of every biodiversity analysis. Many biodiversity frameworks at the moment, however, do not include soil indicators for measuring biodiversity – or if they do, they make the analysis optional. This is a huge problem since healthy soils, characterized by their ability to provide vital ecosystem functions such as nutrient and carbon cycling, are the base layer for healthy ecosystems. They need to be understood in order to derive insights about the effect of land management changes and biodiversity progress. Second, if soils are included as important pillar, they cannot be analyzed solely via remote sensing. The soil is a living, complex substance which we are only now beginning to understand – thanks to new analysis tools like environmental DNA (eDNA) and progress in science.

Soil data as early indicator for carbon trends and above ground biodiversity developments

So soil health matters – but why should we start measuring it? It’s very simple: The soil is the basis for all above ground biodiversity – and with that an incredible data treasure chest. Changes in above ground biodiversity (like an increase in a specific species, e.g. rabbits) can often be predicted far in advance by looking at changes in the Soil Food Web. While bioacoustics and camera traps can help us understand how many rabbits we can find in an ecosystem right now, they can only assist with quantifying a status quo. But for an increase of rabbit to occur, there must be new food sources which rabbits can eat. And what birds and animals feed on, e.g. worms or plants, all has been provided for by the soil – and can be tracked by looking at the soil microbiome.

Everything starts in the soil and everything leaves traces in the soil. This means that understanding changes in the soil food web allows us to predict changes early on and assess the success of e.g. changed land management practices early in advance. What happens below ground will directly impact the above ground ecosystem – it might just take some time for the changes to become visible in a changed variety of plants, trees, animals or birds.

But decoding soil life is not something easy: Soil is the most complex substance on Earth – and changes in its functionality cannot be tracked by looking at it from above. This is why you need to zoom into the soil and look at its organic layer – at the part of the soil which lives, which communicates, which constantly evolves. We do that via analyzing eDNA from soil samples collected from the ground and comparing the organisms we find with a wide range of libraries, thereby understanding exactly what happens in the soil, how it functions and develops. This allows us to understand not just what is in the soil, but what it does.

But what exactly is eDNA and how do we analyze it? Just like humans have their own genetic footprint, their unique DNA, so does our environment. Living things leave their traces wherever they are, through various secretions, skin or hair, all of which contain DNA – environmental DNA (eDNA) is nothing other than DNA released by organisms into the environment. eDNA which is deposited in soil, water or even air can be extracted and used as a barcode for the organism, enabling its identification using molecular biology tools. At Soilytix we are experts in extracting and analyzing eDNA from soil samples, providing the biological fingerprint of soils.

Using eDNA helps us to decode the soil microbiome – and enables us to understand its health, and its ability to provide core ecosystem functions. A healthy soil is full of life – and an important carbon sink. With eDNA analysis, we can understand how the microbial processing unit in the soil functions and thereby derive important insights with regards to the future carbon storage potential of the soil: We do not just help to understand how much carbon is stored in the soil right now (which is the standard way of looking at soil organic carbon at the moment) – but we can analyze the ability of soil to continuously and effectively store carbon in the future. By assessing the soil’s carbon use efficiency (CUE), we have developed a completely new early indicator allowing us to make future predictions – and change our land management practices early on according to the findings.

To protect our soils we need to quantify their state

Everything starts in the soil. Everything ends in the soil. But our soils are being depleted around the globe: Currently, more than 40% of global soils are degraded. The main reason for that is intensive agricultural activity.

Luckily, society is finally starting to recognize that we need to change our way of farming, that in the interest of food security and climate regulation, regenerative agriculture must actively promote, restore and enhance soil health. However, when it comes to promoting regenerative agriculture, often the soil is treated as a standard organism which can be treated via one-size-fits-all solutions. These, however, do not look at the soil as a living substance which always looks and functions differently, depending on your specific geography and geology. Even within one field, you can find many different types of soil, many different states of soil functional biodiversity.

Also, we live in a time where we only value what can be quantified. This means: In order to protect something, we need to be able to track changes and progress adequately. At the moment, on the national and European level, soil is often only analyzed by its chemical parameters while soil biology is overlooked. But we need to look at its ability to provide core ecosystem functions, at its health – in order to make sound decision-making with regards to better land management practices. Quantifying the benefits of healthy soils and the effect of its degradation will also help to understand what tremendous costs we are facing if we do not take action to protect our soils now.

Coming from precision medicine and biochemistry, we at Soilytix are convinced that we need to understand the soil like we now can understand human blood – only this way we can protect it, can we enhance its health, can we reduce pesticides and sustainably increase yields, can we predict future ecosystem-level developments and food chain effects.

We urgently need to act and safeguard our soils – but for this, we need to understand them. Our soils are not dirt, and they are not just a layer one can assess from space. Our soils live – and we need to get to know them.

From Soil with kindness,

Your Soilytix Team




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