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By some estimates, fewer than 1 percent of all bacteria species have been identified, and bacteria are only one type of microbe. Some microbiologists say microbial “dark matter” forms the invisible backbone of life on our planet and plays a huge role in essential processes such as carbon and nutrient cycling. Bacteria help store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil or the ocean. Microbes also play a key role in global food webs.
Yet even as we’re beginning to discover this microbial richness, some scientists worry it could be slipping away. Studies have shown that soils disturbed by environmental change boast less bacterial diversity than undisturbed soils. Just as Darwin, Audubon, Muir and other naturalists of old once described the planet’s plants and animals, these new naturalists are now scrambling to catalog Earth’s rich microbial infrastructure. Their work is transforming the way we think about agriculture, energy and ecosystems, and could ultimately help us reduce human impacts on the environment.