They live in every environment on Earth. From plant roots, rumens of cows to every square centimeter of our skin, they congregate on billions of cells. Moreover, they have been found in the deepest oceans and centers of volcanoes1. Inside our bodies, they amount to over 40 trillion cells, surpassing the number of human cells in our own body. In soils all around the world, they help determine the success (or struggle) of their above-ground comrades: plants.
Microorganisms are the driving force of all life on this planet. In fact, they were the very first life forms to migrate out of the oceans and colonize the land. As facilitators of ancient connections between plants and soil, these microscopic organisms have the capacity to revolutionize farming as we know it.
In a single teaspoon of healthy soil, at least 1 billion microbes flow in a complex ecological network. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes are the key players in this underground theater of decomposition, predation, and nutrient cycling. Together, they make up the Soil Microbiome: a diverse genetic reservoir of trillions of microbial genes. These microbial ecosystems have the capacity to increase agricultural yields by 20 to 50% or more, all the while pulling carbon down from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. The abundance and diversity of the soil microbiome is a key bioindicator of soil health.
It’s no secret that we are losing arable soil at an alarming rate; by some estimates, 24 billion tons per year. It is blowing away, washing away, and losing its capacity to grow plants.
We can see these alarming patterns all over the world. The “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East is now full of dry sandy deserts. The deep, rich “black gold” soils of the Midwest, which were once some of the most fertile soils in the world, have lost over half of their topsoil in the last century. Over 1/6th of China’s landmass is degrading or already degraded. And the dreary list goes on.