8000-kilometer cycling trip shows that some microbes ‘are everywhere’

Wolfgang Burtscher

8000-kilometer cycling trip shows that some microbes ‘are everywhere’

When microbial ecology graduate student Magdalena Nagler’s adviser told her about artist-cyclist Wolfgang Burtscher’s proposed 8000 kilometer journey from Austria to Laos, she jumped at a chance to combine art with science and possibly promote public awareness of the upcoming International Year of Soils (2015). He was game to research the microbial communities he would encounter on his journey, and every day after he made what he called a “tripmark,” a tire tread imprint on a piece of paper with location information and notes (above), he filled three vials of dirt and sent them back to Nagler at the University of Innsbruck, providing her with a rare opportunity to examine many samples of microbes from a broad geographic range. She sequenced DNA in each sample to learn what fungi and soil bacteria—called actinobacteria—were present. She also looked up the climate, soil type, and other conditions at each site to see if there was any correlation between the microbes present and the local environment. She found—as some microbiologists have long thought—that many microbes are everywhere. But the amount of each type at each site varies enormously, and her data showed that communities with similar soils and climates are more likely to be similar than microbial communities that are geographically close together. Thus, environmental factors take precedence over spatial proximity, the team reports in the March issue of Applied Soil Ecology. In addition to showing that science and art can mix nicely together, the work confirms a hundred-year-old theory among microbiologists: While the environment determines which microbes thrive in a given place, “everything is everywhere.” The tripmark exhibit is still being finalized, but already this art-science project has been on display at two conferences as part of an effort to make the public more aware of soil microbial life. As for Nagler, she’s on the lookout for another opportunity to meld art and science.

Follow News from Science

A 3D plot from a model of the Ebola risk faced at different West African regions over time.
dancing shoes