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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Tropical rain forests are often heralded as the ultimate in biodiversity. From beetles to boa constrictors, they contain more forms of life than anywhere else. Well, it turns out that the backyards of Kansas, at least in one way, have more variety than the rain forest. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

If you know a child who likes digging in the dirt, you might want to tell them about Noah Fierer. He's a microbial ecologist. That is, he studies what's under foot.

Mr. NOAH FIERER (Microbial Ecologist): Ever since I was a kid I loved digging in the dirt. It is, to some degree, such uncharted territory. There's so--the number of things we don't know far outweigh the number of things that we do know.

JOYCE: We don't know, for example, how many kinds of microbes live in the soil. We're not even close. Recent surveys suggest perhaps hundreds of thousands of species in a spoonful of dirt. For Fierer, that's opportunity knocking.

Mr. FIERER: We know that they're responsible for a whole slew of different things and that the trick now is trying to unravel what they're actually doing and who's doing what.

JOYCE: To that end, Fierer trekked through the Amazon forest in Peru, digging in the dirt. He also collected soil from the Kansas prairie, the New Mexico deserts and dozens of other locales along with fellow ecologist Robert Jackson at Duke University. They half expected that the rain forest, with perhaps the world's most diverse collection of life, would yield the most types of microbes, too.

Mr. FIERER: And we were surprised to find the opposite in that the soils from the tropics actually had lower levels of diversity than soils from more temperate ecosystems.

JOYCE: Even deserts?

Mr. FIERER: Even deserts. There's a high probability that in your average backyard there's a higher diversity soil bacteria there than in the Amazonian rain forest.

JOYCE: Fierer says microbes apparently aren't like plants and insects and birds. The rain forest isn't a piece of heaven. The soil is actually too acidic to be hospitable to many bacteria. Scientists say they're finding out a lot of new things about soil microbes now that they can track them down using DNA. Otherwise, they're just too small and numerous. For example, scientists at the University of Colorado have discovered that more microbes live in the Rockies under the snowpack in winter than in the summer.

Fierer and Jackson report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fierer says soil microbes are a source of new substances for pharmaceuticals, for example, and this might point searchers closer to home.

Mr. FIERER: The big question that's remaining and that we haven't even started to touch is what are these guys doing down there? What are these bacteria doing in the soil? And related to that is what sort of chemicals are they producing?

JOYCE: Fierer says he'll start focusing on identifying the actual species next. He expects he'll find some new ones, though it won't be a ticket to fame. He says new species of bacteria aren't charismatic enough to actually get named. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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