University of TyumenThe secret life of soil

The secret life of soil

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The University of Tyumen’s scientists are investigating what earth, and the life forms within it, can tell us about our environment

Buried beneath the soil that we stand on, tiny creatures can reveal the mysteries of our environment – from its current health to how it is changing.

Soil zoology is the study of how animal and plant life interact with their surrounding soil and plant environments. It is the primary research focus of the International Complex Research Laboratory for Climate, Land Use Change and Biodiversity at the University of Tyumen. Part of Tyumen’s Institute of Environmental and Agricultural Biology (X-BIO), the laboratory is among the world’s leaders in the study of soil mites.

“The issues of ecological plant physiology, biology of vectors of transmissible diseases, biological invasions and soil ecology are also covered by other teams,” says Andrey Yurtaev, who leads the laboratory. “We all have one thing in common: the objects of our investigations are related to the soil in one way or another, in the sense that the soil is the universal habitat of living organisms.”

Soil is an essential part of our ecosystems. It filters water, stores waste and provides nutrients. Most of our food comes from it and the billions of organisms that live within it. “Metaphorically speaking, the soil is not just a part of the biosphere – it is the biosphere,” Dr Yurtaev says.

“There are many species of animals that live in the soil, mainly invertebrates. The biomass of soil animals significantly exceeds the biomass of terrestrial animals,” he adds. Soil animals perform various roles: they process plant litter and enrich it, for example, helping to accumulate nutrients for plants to thrive.

Soil mites are one group of animals studied by the lab’s researchers. Found in all types of soil, these mites are highly sensitive to soil pollution. Therefore, they can offer invaluable insights into the biology of the area, as well as evidence of the changing climate.  

“The study of mites allows us to obtain paleoecological data. For example, a study of fossil mites in amber reveals clear changes in the climate,” says Dr Yurtaev. “Today, groups of mites that were found in Baltic amber, which was formed about 40 million years ago in the late Eocene, live much further south, namely in tropical and subtropical zones. It determines that in the Eocene, the climate in northern Europe was much warmer.”

The laboratory, which was created in 2012 as part of a joint Russian-German research project supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is currently investigating several key research and development projects.

One study, funded by the Russian Science Foundation, will make it possible to identify the transition times of different groups of acariform mites between habitats using phylogenetics, palaeontological information and molecular clocks. The research team, led by Dr Pavel Klimov, will organise expeditions to the coast and inland water bodies of Australia and Brazil as part of the project.

Another project focuses on soil palaeoecology, and aims to examine pedosediments that have “soil memory”. Funded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, the study will look at palaeosols – ancient, preserved soils – at important palaeolithic, archaeological and palaeontological sites in Western Siberia, where Tyumen is located, and in other parts of Russia.

Looking to the future of soil science, the laboratory is exploring the creation of virtual, or three-dimensional, soils. “Virtual soil is a cyber model of real soil, the parameters of which we can adjust according to our needs. Why is it important? We could predict how the soil system will evolve under changing global factors, for example, climate parameters,” Dr Yurtaev says.

“Also, in some areas of the Earth, for example in the Arctic, there are no fertile soils. Using the created virtual soil, we would be able to form a real soil with the given parameters. With the help of cyber soils, it is also possible to programme and monitor the soil health of real pedological systems.”

Collaboration with other scientists – including those working in other research areas – is a key aspect of the laboratory’s work. It shares intellectual, material and administrative resources with other groups in the X-BIO Institute. “We have an opportunity to consult with experts in physics, chemistry, cryology, information technologies. Moreover, we attract X-BIO students to our studies; some of them are now part-time employees of the laboratory,” says Dr Yurtaev.

Equipment is also shared, resulting in joint projects and publications between scientists in the X-BIO Institute’s sub-departments. Interacting with the university’s experts in nanotechnology, for example, gives researchers an opportunity to study their subjects through electron microscopy, Dr Yurtaev says.

Research partnerships with those outside the university are equally important. Known for its openness to international collaborations, the laboratory has been involved in various projects with universities and research organisations from all over the world.

Mite researchers in other countries regularly collaborate with the laboratory. One example is a study of mites in South Africa, carried out with the National Museum in Bloemfontein. This resulted in the biodiversity of mites in South African termitaries being studied for the first time, with a large number of new species described.

Another international cooperation helped to catalogue oribatid mites from the Malay Archipelago. Working with the University of the Philippines, laboratory scientist Sergey Ermilov documented a 113-year (1905-2018) period of investigation of mites of the archipelago, which includes Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines.

Dr Ermilov, a leading international specialist on oribatid mites, was also part of a project with the Institute of Zoology in Slovakia that discovered a new species. He named these oribatid mites, which live on the forest floors in Malaysia, Trachyoribates viktortsoii, after Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet rock musician and songwriter he admired.  

“International cooperation provides great opportunities for the exchange of scientific experience. It allows one to determine one’s current scientific level and learn new methods and approaches,” says Dr Yurtaev.

“Another important aspect in international cooperation is the involvement of promising young people into science. And of course, it’s very interesting,” he adds.

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