Leaves Returning Once More To Soil: Visualising The NecroPhylloplane

 

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I ran a microbiology and art workshop at the Eden Project earlier this week for around 400 members of their team. The event was  a prelude to Eden’s groundbreaking Invisible Worlds Project which will  explore the world, that we now know, lies beyond our limited human senses. Please follow this link for more information on this unique and important project  Invisible Worlds.

As is the case, everywhere else, unseen microorganisms underpin all of the visible life at the Eden project including not only its plants, but also its visitors and staff.

At this time of year many of the native trees at Eden have shed their leaves,  and the grounds are littered with dead leaves. In turn, when broken down, this leaf litter becomes an important source of energy and carbon that contributes to the health and vitality of soil. Unseen microorganisms, and especially bacteria and fungi,  are amongst the few organisms that secrete enzymes that can break down large leaf  molecules, such as cellulose, chitin, and lignin, into smaller compounds that can be taken up by the soil biota. In a sense then, these  unsung microbes condition the leaf litter to allow it to become a central part of many soil food webs, and without these and their activity,  there would be no soil, or indeed any other life that relies upon it.

So that we could reveal these invisible, yet vital lifeforms, I walked around the site with Rachel Warmington, Eden’s plant pathologist, who collected fallen leaves for me.  In my workshop, members of the Eden Team imprinted these leaves onto Tryptone Soy Agar ( a growth medium for vegetarian bacteria) in order to transfer the invisible leaf microbiota to the agar surface.  Back in the lab, these plates were incubated to allow the bacteria and fungi to grow, and thus to become visible, and so these fallen leave that look to be dead actually aren’t. Vacated by their botanical biochemistry, these leaves are now infused with a vital cocktail of microbial life and activities.  Please see the images below.

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