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Biological Sciences Division

June 2017

‘The Invisible Creatures Around Us’


Scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of all bacterial species remain unidentified. That makes these microbes a kind of biological “dark matter,” little known despite the essential roles they play in sustaining life, including Earth’s machinery for carbon and nutrient cycling.

Prominent in the search for what she calls this “black box” of scientific inquiry is microbial ecologist Janet K. Jansson, who was recently quoted extensively in a feature on microbes in Ensia, a magazine focused on environmental challenges.

The title comes right to the point: “Scientists Scramble to Understand the Invisible Creatures around Us before It’s Too Late.” The text itself begins by describing a Nature paper that Jansson co-authored last year on how microbial communities respond to wetting in the Namib Desert, a scorching expanse of sand and rock along the coast of southwestern Africa.

Of the five researchers in the feature, the PNNL scientist commands the most real estate – six paragraphs. “Precipitation is key to soil moisture, and moisture is a major driver of microbial activity in soil,” Jansson is quoted as saying at one point. “As precipitation patterns change, we want to know what’s happening to that carbon.”

The feature also mentions the Earth Microbiome Project, a 1,000-scientist open-source attempt to archive the planet’s microbial lineages. Jannson has a prominent role in that.

At PNNL, she directs the Microbiomes in Transition initiative, which is organizing a joint conference Aug. 1-3 with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.

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