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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Not in My Spoon!

Did you know a billion bacteria can fit into a single teaspoon? In fact, there could be 4,000 kinds of bacteria in there—and that’s not all. Besides bacteria, other microbes—called fungi and protozoa—could be lurking in that teaspoon.

The microbes create chemical substances called enzymes that help break down leaves, plants, branches, and other materials. They all become part of the rich, dark soil that provides the food to grow even more plants and trees.

So without these microbes, plants and trees would not be able to grow and live a healthy life.

Soil microbiologist Veronica Acosta-Martinez is an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist in Lubbock, Texas, who studies these microbes.

She and other scientists want to see if they can tell whether different types of farming create a better environment for these
important organisms. They do this by measuring levels of microbes and their enyzmes on different crop fields.

While it can take at least 10 years to see if soil carbon levels are going up or down, it only takes a few years to see what is happening with microbes. So, counting microbes and enzymes in teaspoons of soil can give an early idea as to whether soil carbon levels are likely to go up or down. Carbon is an important "ingredient" in organic matter -- bits and pieces of once-living things that make soil good for growing plants.

So far, scientists have found that growing grass is better for soil than growing crops like corn or soybeans. Also, not growing the same crop every year is good for soil, too.

By Don Comis, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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