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The World of Underground Ecology in a Changing Environment

Drawing by Camille E. Defrenne


Moira Hough, Department of Environmental Science and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, AZ, USA
Elsa Abs, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, UC Irvine, CA, USA

Soils cover 150 millions km2 of the Earth surface, which represents 30% of its total surface, but are responsible for almost 50% of global carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It is therefore crucial to understand how they respond to environmental change. The main actors of the underground flows of carbon and nutrients are soil bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizae and the fine roots they are associated with. They form complex ecosystems to study due to their microscopic size, and the difficulty to access and observe them without disrupting the spatial structure of their habitat that determine their interactions and their access to nutrients and water.

Thanks to the new techniques of sampling, sequencing, and scanning, we can now open the black box of soil microscopic ecosystems. Standardization of methods and collection of data into global database allow to reveal patterns in their properties that correlate with specific abiotic and biotic conditions. They have also revealed the geographic regions lacking data, highlighting the inequality of access to research in soil ecology in the world, and raising furthermore awareness about the lack of diversity in our community of soil ecologists.

This special feature of Elementa presents state-of-the-art science attempting to respond to the questions: Which life history traits of the belowground microorganisms are responsible for soil biogeochemical response to changes in environmental conditions, such as urbanization or climate change? Which biotic and abiotic interactions matter? At which spatial and temporal scales do we need to measure and model these organisms? And how can we build a more diverse, inclusive and interdisciplinary community of soil ecologists?

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