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Linking Journalism with the Web of Life

From tomorrow (Saturday 11th Dec) until Wednesday I will be attending a scientific conference in the town of Bragança Paulista, organised by FAPESP, the public body that funds scientific research in the state of São Paulo - which contributes about half of all the published scientific papers in Brazil. The theme is "Getting post-2010 Biodiversity Targets Right", and it will bring together experts from around the world to discuss how the strategy for reducing biodiversity loss, agreed at October's UN summit in Japan, can benefit from the latest science and use robust data about the state of life on Earth.

I will be tweeting and blogging from the conference itself, but first here is a preview I did which grabbed the top slot on this week's Science in Action programme, on BBC World Service Radio. It focuses on one of themes of the conference, "Metagenomics as a tool to assess micro-biodiversity". Meta-what? you may well ask, as I did when I read this bit of the programme. But fighting the temptation to allow my eyes to glaze over and move on to some easier concepts, I persevered with some of the abstracts in this section, and realised it was a fascinating field: the use of DNA decoding techniques to analyse the extraordinarily complex communities of micro-organisms that occur in nature - in soils, oceans, plants, etc. Because most of these microbes will not reproduce outside the environment where they have evolved, the standard techniques of culturing bacteria etc in the lab do not work - so the communities are studied as a whole, with samples brought back from the environment and mashed into a kind of soup from which "total DNA" is extracted and identified.

Looking for the fieldwork within easiest reach of my current base in coastal São Paulo state, I was fortunate to come across the work of Professor Márcio Lambais, at the Department of Soil Sciences in the University of São Paulo, based at the ESALQ campus in the city of Piracicaba. His team has been looking at the communities of bacteria that occur in a number of tree species in the Atlantic Forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Lambais has found that the leaves, bark and roots each have distinct, amazingly diverse communities of bacteria that are unique to that species. Not only that - when they took samples from the same species a long distance apart, the bacterial communities changed again. So if a tree species is lost from a particular region, literally thousands of bacteria species go with it. So what? Well, I discuss some of the implications in the BBC report, and for those wanting a more in-depth discussion of the research I have posted on my blog site a full version of the interview I did with Márcio Lambais in a small forest adjoining his campus in Piracicaba.

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