Archive for the ‘mapping’ tag

What Lies in the Soil?

By October 29th, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Comment

Drag your bones toward even more Halloween-themed citizen science!

microblitz

We know from basic ecology that organisms are adapted to their environment, and where certain organisms live should fall along a gradient of critical environmental factors such as moisture, temperature, nutrient availability, or substrate. How these factors impact diversity and distribution are questions that we could solve for macroorganisms like trees, but the hidden world of microbes still has yet to yield the answers to these mysteries.

Dr. Andy Whiteley and Dr. Christine Whiteley are investigating these questions with MicroBlitz, a citizen science project centered at the University of Western Australia. They’re interested in digging up soil and finding out what lives inside. To do this, they’ve been enlisting the help of volunteers around Western Australia to sample soil. Volunteers go out, bite into the earth with a shovel, and send their specific blend of microbes to the University of Western Australia for Dr. Whiteley to analyze.

To understand this, it’s useful to think of the Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea that the entire Earth, as a biosphere, acts as a living organism. We can imagine soil in a similar light. It’s not actually living but is a teeming metropolis of trillions of microscopic citizens. In a fistful of soil, you might find 10,000 different species of microbe. Dr. Whiteley describes it as “a rainforest under your foot” with each footfall. Soil microbes are the powerhouses of many biogeochemical cycles on the planet, turning over oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur, and are critical to plant growth and productivity. They work unceasingly and are, in a way, the hidden machinery of the planet.

You can imagine microbes as being somewhat specialized. There are bacteria that eat sulfur and others that eat nitrogen, such as Rhizobium, a genus of nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in soil. While you might find these bacteria in many places, presumably you would expect to find more in areas that naturally have more nitrogen or perhaps in areas that have added nitrogen due to industrial processes. And depending on environmental conditions, each place cultivates a specific mix of microbes. There would be certain bacteria that one might find associating with farms or a river. This is what MicroBlitz is trying to understand, and more precisely, trying to map where these bacteria are and what kinds of conditions generate one population of microbes over another.

The project grew out of a similar survey that Dr. Whiteley had done in England in 2007, where they completed a map of soil microbes with the help of trained scientists. It was possible to do it that way, Dr. Whiteley affirms, since there’s less land than in Australia and more scientists per square kilometer. Now two years later, beginning in the March of this year, MicroBlitz is working with the help of citizen scientists to do a map of a much larger scale. Without a large number of MicroBlitz volunteers, the project would be impossible since the territory to cover in Western Australia is vast. How many citizen scientists exactly? Deborah Bowie, the project manager for MicroBlitz, says hundreds have registered, “We’ve sent out over 750 sampling kits so far. People from all over the state are involved, sometimes individually, and sometimes through a group.”

In order to find out what’s inside the soil samples they get, Dr. Whiteley and his lab freeze the soil and extract and sequence the DNA of the microbes. They can use this information to find out what species are living inside the soil and how many of each there are. The data are then uploaded to their website and are accessible for all to appreciate. Whiteley hopes the maps will be available soon. “I’d like to use satellites linked to our maps to understand country-scale levels of things such as microbial mediated greenhouse gas emissions – having the maps let us potentially calibrate this approach,” Whiteley says. Once maps are available, Whiteley plans to be able to repeat the process and begin understanding how environmental change might be affecting the soil and what the soil might be affecting, such as global warming.

The goal is currently to get as many samples from as diverse places as the MicroBlitz team can get. So Whiteley and Bowie often go to under sampled areas to reach out to people, teach them about the project, and encourage them to get involved. Both Whiteley and Bowie agree; it’s the best part of the project. “We ran a DNA workshop for seniors, and they loved it. It was something they had never experienced before … extracting DNA from strawberries, but the smiles on their faces and the feedback will stay with the whole team forever,” Dr. Whiteley says. The project helps teach science to the community and connect them to their environment by showing them what lives beneath their feet.

The MicroBlitz website is currently under construction and will be available in the coming months. You can get involved there or through the SciStarter portal.

Photograph: Deborah Bowie


Angus R. Chen is a research assistant at Princeton University, where he does geochronology research using uranium and lead isotopes from zircon crystals. Previously, he was a research intern at the Harvard Forest, studying the impacts of climate change on soil. He recently graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in environmental science and creative writing. When he’s not in the lab admiring rocks and then pulverizing them, he writes poetry, fiction, science articles, and makes cool videos.

 

Treezilla: A Monster of a Citizen Science Project

By September 12th, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Comment 1

This post is part of this week’s featured projects about other tree projects. Take a look!

treemap

Maps are everywhere these days. They have become as ubiquitous in our daily lives as they have in the science community. Citizen science projects that utilize maps are instantly familiar, easy to use, and enrich scientific data with a valuable spatial component.

Treezilla is a tree-mapping project based in Great Britain and hopes to enlist citizen scientists to map every single tree in the UK. Many of the trees in Britain’s forests have already been mapped (nearly 3.8 billion, in fact). However, the estimates of urban trees in cities, parks, and people’s yards have been poorly catalogued. These trees, although in much smaller number, still have a significant ecological value and are important to study.

Like other tree mapping projects, Treezilla offers an easy to use mapping website that allows citizen scientists to identify tree species and enter measurements, descriptions, and photos online. Treezilla even offers teaching materials, identification guides, and tips on how to measure large trees. If you don’t know the exact species of a tree, other community members can log on and help out based on your descriptions and photos. This allows for a very comprehensive set of data and gives participants a chance to interact with the scientists using the data.

In fact, the potential scientific contribution of this project is quite grand. The site offers built in tools for calculating the amount of CO2 captured and what total economic benefit is gained from the different types of species for a given area. Ultimately, the data will be used to help scientists identify important trends in certain tree species in response to climate change, disease, and land use patterns. You can help by heading to the SciStarter Trezilla project page.

Mapping is an increasing trend in citizen science. Many of these projects are easy – log on, add points to a map, enter your data, and that’s it!


Nick Fordes is a science enthusiast who enjoys doing, teaching, and communicating science. Nick recently graduated from the University of Idaho with an M.S. in Water Resources. His research involved creating a web-based participatory GIS application for use in watershed management. He has a true love for technology and appreciation for what the web-based communications can do for promoting science and increasing science literacy. Nick most recently worked with the Council for Environmental Education, developing K-12 environmental science based curriculum. In his spare time, Nick enjoys biking the bayous in Houston and fishing as often as he can. He has been known to use his scientific knowledge to make a pretty mean brisket.

Image: Treezilla