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Down to earth

As well as slugs, worms and other larger soil life, 1 square metre of topsoil 23 cm deep contains:

  • 10,000 mites
  • 1M nematodes
  • 1 km of fungal hyphae (the web of long filaments of fungus that grow within the soil)
  • 100,000Bn microbes

Bio-scientists are studying the various cycles and interactions in this complex and vital ecosystem to better understand how its constituents contribute to supporting plant life and to its ability to self-renew and break down pollutants.

Bioscience toils for soil

Understanding soil ecosystems has important applications from determining the best regime for applying fertilisers to calculating the amount of time it takes for polluted soil to recover.

Knowledge of how soil ecosystems process harmful chemicals and waste helps to improve the processing of sewage into valuable fertiliser, devise ways of cleaning up polluted soil and understanding how to restore soil depleted of its nutrients.

Nitrogen is a particularly important nutrient for crops, but nitrogen fertilisers are expensive and if applied inappropriately leach away and pollute water systems instead of being used by the growing crops. Scientists at Rothamsted Research have developed mathematical models of nitrogen flow that are being used to produce fertiliser-use recommendations and to help farmers to manage nitrate loss.

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