Soil ecological experiments in the lab. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Department of Soil Ecology

What is the connection between soil organisms and important soil functions such as carbon storage, nutrient conversion and plant productivity? Do land use and climate change have an impact on these relationships and, if so, how? How high is the diversity of soil organisms? Does this diversity influence the diversity of plants and animals? Is it possible to use soil ecological processes to reduce the input of fertilisers and agrochemicals by improving yields and reducing the rate of climate change?

It is the aim of the Department of Soil Ecology to find answers to these and many other questions. We are constantly losing soil resources through sealing, erosion and other types of degradation. Intensive management practices in agriculture and forestry are contributing to an increase in greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere and to the contamination of groundwater and water bodies. We must improve our understanding of ecological soil processes so that we can protect our soil resources and use them sustainably and more effectively to feed our growing world population.

This poses a major scientific challenge because soils are extremely complex. They harbour a very large proportion of world biodiversity, most of which is still unknown. These organisms do not work in isolation but are integrated in complex interaction networks. In addition, despite soils are highly heterogeneous and structured in microcompartments, they also display emergent properties with effects on a regional or even a global scale.

In this context, research in soil ecology must merge expertise in chemical analysis, microbiology, physiology and, increasingly, molecular biology. It combines and integrates laboratory experiments on model systems comprising only a few organisms with less controlled experiments in greenhouses and in the field and finally with analysis series along gradients between regions. Soil ecologists produce huge quantities of data which can only be analysed with high-performance computers.

Our goal is to protect soils and to find ways to restore the biological self-regulation of soils and increase their efficiency at the same time.