Some parts of my small garden are fertile where papaya trees are growing nicely. Why are they fertile and support healthy papaya trees? An article by George Monbiot in the Guardian, May 7th, 2022, would help explain this phenomenon.
He noted that beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil.
Under one square metre of undisturbed ground in the Earth’s mid-latitudes (which include the UK) there might live several hundred thousand small animals. Roughly 90% of the species to which they belong have yet to be named. One gram of this soil – less than a teaspoonful – contains around a kilometre of fungal filaments.
When I first examined a lump of soil with a powerful lens, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. As soon as I found the focal length, it burst into life. I immediately saw springtails – tiny animals similar to insects – in dozens of shapes and sizes. Round, crabby mites were everywhere: in some soils there are half a million in every square metre.
Then I began to see creatures I had never encountered before. What I took to be a tiny white centipede turned out, when I looked it up, to be a different life form altogether, called a symphylid. I spotted something that might have stepped out of a Japanese anime: long and low, with two fine antennae at the front and two at the back, poised and sprung like a virile dragon or a flying horse. It was a bristletail, or dipluran.
As I worked my way through the lump, again and again I found animals whose existence, despite my degree in zoology and a lifetime immersed in natural history, had been unknown to me. After two hours examining a kilogram of soil, I realised I had seen more of the major branches of the animal kingdom than I would on a week’s safari in the Serengeti.
That this thin cushion between rock and air can withstand all we throw at it and still support us is a dangerous belief.
But even more arresting than soil’s diversity and abundance is the question of what it actually is. Most people see it as a dull mass of ground-up rock and dead plants. But it turns out to be a biological structure, built by living creatures to secure their survival, like a wasps’ nest or a beaver dam. Microbes make cements out of carbon, with which they stick mineral particles together, creating pores and passages through which water, oxygen and nutrients pass. The tiny clumps they build become the blocks the animals in the soil use to construct bigger labyrinths.
Soil is fractally scaled, which means its structure is consistent, regardless of magnification. Bacteria, fungi, plants and soil animals, working unconsciously together, build an immeasurably intricate, endlessly ramifying architecture that organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds. This biological structure helps to explain soil’s resistance to droughts and floods: if it were just a heap of matter, it would be swept away.
It also reveals why soil can break down so quickly when it’s farmed. Under certain conditions, when farmers apply nitrogen fertiliser, the microbes respond by burning through the carbon: in other words, the cement that holds their catacombs together. The pores cave in. The passages collapse. The soil becomes sodden, airless and compacted.
But none of the above capture the true wonder of soil.
Let’s start with something that flips our understanding of how we survive. Plants release into the soil between 11% and 40% of all the sugars they make through photosynthesis. They don’t leak them accidentally. They deliberately pump them into the ground. Stranger still, before releasing them, they turn some of these sugars into compounds of tremendous complexity.
Making such chemicals requires energy and resources, so this looks like pouring money down the drain. Why do they do it? The answer unlocks the gate to a secret garden.
These complex chemicals are pumped into the zone immediately surrounding the plant’s roots, which is called the rhizosphere. They are released to create and manage its relationships.
Soil is full of bacteria. Its earthy scent is the smell of the compounds they produce. In most corners, most of the time, they wait, in suspended animation, for the messages that will wake them. These messages are the chemicals the plant releases. They are so complex because the plant seeks not to alert bacteria in general, but the particular bacteria that promote its growth. Plants use a sophisticated chemical language that only the microbes to whom they wish to speak can understand.
When a plant root pushes into a lump of soil and starts releasing its messages, it triggers an explosion of activity. The bacteria responding to its call consume the sugars the plant feeds them and proliferate to form some of the densest microbial communities on Earth. There can be a billion bacteria in a single gram of the rhizosphere; they unlock the nutrients on which the plant depends and produce growth hormones and other chemicals that help it grow. The plant’s vocabulary changes from place to place and time to time, depending on what it needs. If it’s starved of certain nutrients, or the soil is too dry or salty, it calls out to the bacteria species that can help.
Take a step back and you will see something that transforms our understanding of life on Earth. The rhizosphere lies outside the plant, but it functions as if it were part of the whole. It could be seen as the plant’s external gut. The similarities between the rhizosphere and the human gut, where bacteria also live in astonishing numbers, are uncanny. In both systems, microbes break down organic material into the simpler compounds the plant or person can absorb. Though there are more than 1,000 phyla (major groups) of bacteria, the same four dominate both the rhizosphere and the guts of mammals.
Just as human breast milk contains sugars called oligosaccharides, whose purpose is to feed not the baby but the bacteria in the baby’s gut, young plants release large quantities of sucrose into the soil, to feed and develop their new microbiomes. Just as the bacteria that live in our guts outcompete and attack invading pathogens, the friendly microbes in the rhizosphere create a defensive ring around the root. Just as bacteria in the colon educate our immune cells and send chemical messages that trigger our body’s defensive systems, the plant’s immune system is trained and primed by bacteria in the rhizosphere.
Soil might not be as beautiful to the eye as a rainforest or a coral reef, but once you begin to understand it, it is as beautiful to the mind. Upon this understanding our survival might hang.