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Microbiome Monday: The Microbiome of Central Park

by AMNH on

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It's Microbiome Monday again! Before the Museum’s upcoming exhibition The Secret World Inside You opens November 7, we’re offering weekly primers on the microbiome and the research surrounding it from Curators Rob DeSalle and Susan Perkins, as well as from other scientists who are working in this exciting field.

It’s not just individual organisms that have microboiomes, though. The population of microbes in a clump of soil can be hugely diverse. Dr. Noah Fierer’s lab at the University of Colorado studies communities of microbes in forests, parks, homes, and offices, seeking to understand the distribution of these organisms and the role they play in ecosystems.

Sampling Species in Central Park's Soil

When we think of places that harbor enormous amounts of biological diversity, we typically think of vast coral reefs or lush tropical forests. One ecosystem that’s teeming with life, though, is right in the heart of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities: New York’s Central Park is a haven for hundreds of thousands of species of microbes. In the summer of 2012, our team of ecologists descended on Central Park with the goal of cataloging the microbial diversity found in soil samples from around the park.

Noah Fierer CP 1
Dr. Noah Fierer's search for microbes in Central Park took him from forests to lake shores.
© N. Fierer

Fueled by hot dogs and pretzels, our team collected nearly 600 soil samples in different parts of the park. We took these samples back to my lab at the University of Colorado, where we used DNA sequencing tools to investigate the microbial makeup of these soils. 

What we found amazed us. We found that the soils here are home to more than 160,000 species of organisms, the majority of which were unknown to science. If one wants to find new species of soil organisms, there’s no need to launch an expedition to parts unknown—a  simple stroll in Central Park will suffice.

Noah Fierer CP 2
Central Park's soil hosts hundreds of thousands of microbe species from around the world.
© N. Fierer

We were also surprised to find that the park’s microbial residents, like its human citizens, came from all over the world. Most of the organisms found in soils from across the globe (including tropical rain forests, deserts, and frozen tundra) are also represented within the 843 acres of Central Park.

These soil organisms aren’t just scientific curiosities, though. Many serve as important regulators of soil fertility—without them, the trees and grasses that make Central Park one of the world’s most famous public green spaces might not be able to thrive. Some of these organisms may one day be harnessed to produce drugs, including powerful antibiotics that could have huge implications for human health.

Central Park Meadow
The park may look crowded, but even tourists are outnumbered by microbes in the soil!
© N. Fierer

So next time you walk through Central Park, think of the enormous diversity of unknown organisms living in the soil beneath your feet. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo Da Vinci said that “we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” It’s only in the last few years we’re learning how right he really was, and how far we have to go in understanding this hidden world that surrounds us.