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Scientists Unearth Soil’s Secret ‘DNA’ to Mark Biology Week

25 September 2012

UK - Naturalist Chris Packham is helping scientists to unlock the secrets of soil by unravelling its genetic fingerprint. His garden soil will have its 'DNA' sequenced in a race against the clock, to highlight both the rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology and its expanding range of uses in biological science.

Samples of soils from Chris' garden, and the surrounding area in the New Forest, will be sequenced in under one week to reveal genetic data from the microbes they contain. The data will unearth which microorganisms are in the soil and what they do.

This cutting edge soil analysis is only a reality due to the rapid speed at which genetic data can now be gathered. The technique is still in its infancy but could offer great benefits for agriculture, helping us to understand how soil works, how climate and farming can affect soil systems, and how to ensure productivity and sustainability.

The soil samples were collected by Chris Packham at his home in the New Forest in Hampshire and have been rapidly transported to The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich where the sequencing process provides the genetic data in under a week.

The data will then be analysed with results presented during Biology Week (13-19 October 2012). Chris took samples from different sites around his home, including the garden lawn, a dung heap and nearby woodland. TGAC scientists will extract, sequence and analyse the DNA and compare the different qualities of the different samples.

Chris Packham said: "I heard of the human genome project, and the recently released tomato genome, but the idea of decoding the genetic information of the bugs in my garden soil is astounding… and in just a matter of days! Soil is teeming with microscopic life, whether it's bacteria, fungi or invertebrates, and this new tool is a powerful way to study the tiny microbial worlds that are essential to life on earth. I can't wait to see what beneficial bugs are lurking in my back garden."

Professor Jane Rogers from TGAC said: "Obtaining genetic data from an organism used to be a laborious process but with the latest technology a project that would have taken years now takes just one week.

"Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing, whole genomes, the entirety of an organism's genetic information, can be sequenced in a matter of days - and it is getting faster. In the next few months, we well have the capability to sequence a genome the size of the human in 24 hours. This amazing capability has huge benefits for bioscience."

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

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