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Soil Safari

Part of Women In STEM Activities

Join us on a soil safari and find out lots of interesting facts about the things that live in soil, the jobs they do and how some of them work together.

Meet the Scientists

Senga and Carmen are plant scientists. They both study plant roots and soil organisms. Read about their jobs and career journey to date in their career profiles.

What Is Soil?

Soil is the top layer of the Earth which we mostly think of as where grass, flowers, trees, and crops grow. It is a mixture of different components like tiny pieces of rock particles, clay and decaying organic material (like dead plants and animals, leaf litter and poo).

There are many different types of soil and this depends on how much of the different components are there, the climate, how well it is looked after by humans and by the plants, animals and microbes living and growing on and in them.

Different organisms prefer different soil environments; for example, fruit trees love growing in soil that has lots of clay, but carrots really do not like that type of soil. Generally, the more organic material a soil has the better because organic material has lots of nutrients that are helpful for the organisms living there.

Let us go on a soil safari and find out what organisms we will find...

Plants

Plants
Plants

We come in many different types and we like different types of soil but the more nutrients in the soil the happier we will be. We have special relationships with a lot of the other organisms in soil and work as a team with some of them (called symbiosis). Our roots are important for this. We release chemicals which bacteria love to eat and other organisms give us nutrients that we need to survive and grow.

Bacteria

Bacteria
Bacteria

We live in soil and particularly like living around plant roots. We are tiny and you can only see us with a microscope. There are thousands of different types (species) of us and in just 1g of soil there can be as many as 10 million of us! We get food from the plant roots and some of us help the plant to grow or defend plants against organisms that can make them sick called pathogens.

Decomposer Fungi

Decomposer Fungi
Decomposer Fungi

We also get called saprotrophs (sap-roe-trofes) but you know us best as mushrooms. We are important to soil because we break down (decompose) things like dead plants and poo and return their nutrients back to the soil for plants and other soil organisms to use.

Nematodes

Nematodes
Nematodes

We are thin worms that range from being around as thick as a human hair to being 10 times thinner! We can be shorter than 1mm or even a metre long! We are like a soil transport system. We carry bacteria and fungi that live on our skin and inside our bodies through the soil and even spread them on to plant roots where lots of us live.

M. Fungi

M. Fungi
M. Fungi

We are a special type of fungi who have a job that is almost like a food delivery service. We have long, thin growths call hyphae that spread out up to a mile long and form a huge network. We use our hyphae to deliver nutrients from soil far away directly into the roots of plants (mostly trees and some crops).

Algae

Algae
Algae

We love it when our soil home is warm and wet. We can make our own food from the sun, just like plants. We hold the soil together and releasing nutrients that feed plants and other soil organisms. When we die, we form a crust over the top of the soil to protect it from bad weather.

Viruses

Viruses
Viruses

We can infect plants, bacteria and fungi which makes them sick. Normally this is bad but sometimes we infect bacteria and fungi that harm plants so we can still be helpful sometimes. We come in lots of different type and some are called Phages, can you find out what is special about a Phage?

Oh No! Rodney the Bacillus has a viral infection!

A phage infects bacteria by attaching itself to the bacteria and injecting its genes inside. The virus then uses the bacterias’ “organs” (which we call organelles) to make thousands of copies of itself until the bacteria gets completely filled up and eventually bursts! When the bacteria bursts open it releases all of the viruses that were inside, and they can go on to infect other bacteria.

Activities

Now you have taken our soil safari, it is time to undertake a couple of challenges featuring the different things that live in soil.

Dr Senga Robertson-Albertyn
Dr Senga Robertson-Albertyn, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee
Dr Carmen M. Escudero-Martinez
Dr Carmen M. Escudero-Martinez Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee
Soil Safari Challenge 1
Soil Safari Challenge 1 (PDF) (Answers)
Soil Safari Challenge 2
Soil Safari Challenge 2 (PDF) (Answers)

This page is part of the Women In STEM Activities information.

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