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Thursday, 09 October 2014 00:00

More than one hundred species of microscopic worms used to measure soil quality

Reyes Peña Santiago, a ceiA3 scientist at the University of Jaen, leads the Andalusian Nematology Group, a world referent in the study of nematodes, which has identified a total of 119 new species in countries all over the world. The aim is to use these communities as bio indicators in environmental quality of the soils they inhabit.

Nematodes are microscopic animals with a wormlike shape that inhabit both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Presently, some 25,000 species are known, and more than 100,000 are thought to exist. The ceiA3 scientific team researches and identifies those nematode communities inhabiting soil or fresh water sediments, and which are free-living, in other words they are not parasites of other organisms. According to the nematode communities inhabiting soil, we can ascertain if the soil is ecologically adequate.

“Soil is a miniature zoological park on account of its fauna. If you take a sample of 100 grams of forest soil, you will probably find more than 1,000 nematodes of 30 different species”, emphasizes Reyes Peña, who goes on to add that this is a highly complex animal community which must be studied in depth in order to obtain the relevant information from it, and from the environment it inhabits. Therefore, the Jaen group has studied environments in the province and in other parts of the world, taking samples from terrains with the objective of finding new species, and investigating known species to find the environmental information contained.

The work carried out in Aznalcóllar is an example of this research. A mining accident in 1998 caused a spillage of highly contaminating heavy metals in the area. The situation allowed the team to study the first species of nematodes to colonize the soil after the accident, and the progressive ecological succession of nematodes which repopulated it. “This study allowed us to obtain extensive information related to soil quality”, explains the expert.

World Referent

The ceiA3 group, which boasts scientists Juaquín Abolafia, Gracia Liébanas, and Sergio Álvarez, collaborates closely with the Vegetable Health Group at the University of Córdoba and with a large number of scientists from other countries to discover and identify new nematode species. The group coordinated a European master on nematodes in the University of Jaen as part of the European Union Erasmus Mundus Programme, training students from all over the world in the field.

Reyes Peña points out that there are also other lines of investigation which are centered on other nematode groups such as for example parasites or those causing illnesses, with the objective of learning to neutralize their activity. On the other hand, studies are also carried out on nematode groups that can be used in agricultural soil to get rid of blights which attack plants and to reduce the use of pesticides. Likewise, some species such as the Caenorhabditis Elegans are especially valuable to Science on account of the high percentage of genes which are also present in the human genome.

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