By Susana Madera
Quito, Apr 6 (EFE).- A universe of life invisible to the naked eye lies in the soil surrounding Sumaco, a remote stratovolcano in Ecuador’s Amazon region whose immense bacterial wealth is now being studied by an international group of scientists.
Though located just 105 kilometers (65 miles) southeast of Quito, little is known about that fire mountain due to the difficulty in accessing the site.
But that has begun to change since initial studies began in 2018 under the auspices of Ecuador’s Microbiome Project.
A recent study published last month in the Frontiers in Forests and Global Change scientific journal explored the microbiome in the soil of the Sumaco volcano and assessed how elevation and associated environmental gradients may determine microbial richness and bacterial community structure.
Unlike other similar studies in different parts of the world that suggest the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of the soil or altitude are determinant, this research found that “the most important chemical parameter for determining community structure was sulfur,” one of the study’s authors, Pablo Jarrin of Ecuador’s National Institute of Biodiversity (Inabio), told Efe.
That find offers fresh perspective on the factors determining the wealth and stability of a natural environment, the researcher said, adding that people do not pay much attention to bacteria despite their importance.
Human beings are “very visual,” he said. “We give importance to what we see, but what we don’t see is what’s most important because without micro-organisms all these chemical cycles that allow us to grow (food) and feed ourselves would stop, and everything would start to die out.”
Jarrin, who holds a doctorate in biology from Boston University (United States), said life forms in the soil that are invisible to the naked eye “are just like a forest.”
“In every micrometer, there are bacteria that in most cases are doing something that’s good for us: they’re recycling nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and other nutrients,” he said.
The aim of the study, titled “Soil Bacterial Community Along an Altitudinal Gradient in the Sumaco, a Stratovolcano in the Amazon Region,” is therefore to reveal the “hidden wealth that’s in the soil and that can be used to cure diseases, to remedy contamination.”
In the case of Sumaco, “thousands of species of bacteria (were found), many of which are being mentioned for the first time by Ecuador.”
“The soil is full of nutrients that interact with this microbiological structure, and that’s what causes the soil to be alive,” Jarrin said.
Jarrin said he is certain that Ecuador, whose complex geology includes the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest, the Pacific coast, wetlands and other regions, is home to great microbiological wealth.
“The gaps between neighboring countries, developed countries and us are enormous. We’re several decades behind, and the challenge is to come together and work as a team to narrow those gaps that aren’t healthy for the country’s economy nor for technological independence,” he added.
The project that investigated the soil surrounding Sumaco is a step in the right direction, since its collaborators included Spain’s University of Cantabria and University of Valencia and Ohio State University in the US.
The first stage of the investigation offered a “big picture of the biological wealth” of that area.
The next stage will entail digging deeper and isolating the different species and cultivating them in a laboratory to determine their biochemistry, functions and potential benefits, including in biotechnological applications.