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Nematodes: key component of NMSU collaborative research

Audry Olmsted – The Sun-News (12 dec.)

Scientists are just now discovering a whole new world beneath our feet and New Mexico State University researchers are eager to learn and publicize the unique relationships between the organisms in the ground and how they work together with the aboveground ecosystem. With a $240,000 grant from the National Park Service, researchers in the fields of microbial ecology, molecular biology, nematology and soil sciences hope to bring to light this little-studied area of science. The majority of research is being conducted at the White Sands National Monument and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

The grant is broken down into two components – research on the belowground ecosystem and study of carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide. “There are two drivers to the big picture of this research,” said Curtis Monger, a professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “The first goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Since that time, we have put a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. Now, we are looking to see how we can bring that back down. Everyone knows that it can be brought down through trees, but now we are looking at bringing it down and storing it in other materials – like crystals in the soil.” Monger is researching the biomineralization of the carbonate in soil to understand the process of how microorganisms make crystals in which carbon dioxide can be stored.

While Monger studies the mineral side of carbon dioxide, Mary Lucero (molecular biologist – U.S.D.A.’s Jornada Experimental Range) and Adrian Unc (assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences) are working to identify the kinds of microorganisms that are involved. Lucero’s emphasis is on the microbes that live within plants. Unc is studing the different ways carbon can be taken from the atmosphere and cycled through the below-ground ecosystem. Autotrophs are anything able to photosynthesize and they are the pumps removing the carbon from the air and putting it into the ground.

“The most common soil organisms are bacteria and fungi; they are staging the conditions for nutrient cycling for all other organisms,” Unc said. “Arthropods and nematodes are consumers and they are very important because they are working as recyclers of nutrients in the system. If there were no consumers then there would be live and dead tissue with nothing to consume them. The carbon and nitrogen would probably demineralize, but very slowly. Having these larger organisms really accelerates the cycle and releases the nitrogen to be put back into circulation in the atmosphere.”

Steve Thomas, a professor in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science, said the nematodes are a key component to this collaborative research. “The nematodes are looking for carbon,” Thomas said. “They have to get all of their energy from living material. A nematode cannot eat anything that is dead and get any benefit from it. So, they eat the bacteria that are breaking down dead organic matter in soil to get the carbon-containing molecules they need for energy and growth.Except for carbon, almost everything else the nematode digests from the bacteria, the nematode has no use for, and excretes back into the soil, Thomas said. These mineralized nutrients are available to plants and other organisms to pick up and reuse.

Scientists are conducting the majority of their work at White Sands because it is a great natural laboratory for conducting research and according to statistics from the National Park Service, this monument receives the most visitors annually than any other park service location in the state.

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