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Termites bring fertile material to
the surface of African savannas.

Scientists from seven developing countries are to take part in a new US$26-million research project to unravel the mysteries of soil biodiversity.

The project, which was launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will carry out research into tropical soil-dwelling organisms such as insects, beetles, fungi, worms and bacteria.

Knowledge of such organisms will be used to help restore the fertility of degraded lands and increase crop yields without using pesticides and fertilisers. The discovery of new species could also yield new drugs and industrial products.

"There are huge gaps in our knowledge about the variety of organisms in the soil, especially in developing countries," says Mike Swift, director of the Nairobi-based Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute, which is co-ordinating the project. "What we know is the tip of the iceberg."

The five-year programme — entitled the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Below-Ground Biodiversity Project — seeks to develop scientific capacity in soil biology and to spread awareness and knowledge of conserving soil organisms to environmentalists, farmers and government officials. Researchers from Brazil, Mexico, Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda, Kenya, Indonesia and India, as well as European scientists, will be taking part in the initiative.

For example, Fatima Moreira, a soil microbiologist at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil will research ways in which bacteria that take up nitrogen from soil can be used to boost crop production. Such nitrogen-fixing bacteria are already being deployed in Brazil to increase soya harvests in an environmentally friendly way. "This could be an alternative to genetically modified crops," she says.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director says that the new programme — which has received US$9 million in funding from the Global Environment Facility — is "one of the more unusual, curious but absolutely vital" of UNEP's projects.

"The life forms living just below our feet are the most understudied organisms on the planet," he says. "Harvesting the secrets of this understudied realm promises huge benefits and improved knowledge towards the goal of delivering sustainable development."

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Photo credit: UNEP