A Natural History of Subterranean Life
bu David W. Wolfe
ISBN 0-7382-0128-6 221 pages; illustrated
Perseus Publishing Cambridge, MA Publication Date: May 2001 To Order: 1-800-386-5656; Also available at most book stores and from on-line booksellers 2004 - Japanese, Korean translations available.
Table of Contents:
Introduction -- A brief introduction to how modern research techniques are revealing to us for the first time the incredible diversity of life beneath our feet, and an overview of the scope and objectives of the book.
Part 1: Ancient Life
- Chapter 1. Origins Origin of the Earth and its soils, and the evidence that life may have originated in a subterranean environment, with clay minerals serving as catalysts for the synthesis of the first biomolecules.
- Chapter 2. The Habitable Zone How the discovery of "extremophile" microbes that thrive in the deep hot subsurface, without oxygen, sunlight, or organic carbon sources, is changing our perspective on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.
- Chapter 3. Shaking the Tree of Life How molecular genetics led to the discovery of a third "domain" of life-the Archaea-a type of extremophile microbe, and how this alters our concept of the evolutionary "tree of life".
Part 2: Life Support for Planet Earth
- Chapter 4. Out of Thin Air The critical role of free-living and symbiotic bacteria of the underground who are capable of capturing nitrogen from the air and converting it to a molecular form the rest of us can utilize.
- Chapter 5. Nexus of the Underground The ubiquitous mycorrhizal root fungi: how they connect plants underground, and played a critical role in the evolution of life on land.
- Chapter 6. When the Humble Explain the Great Charles Darwin's lifelong study of earthworms, and more recent discoveries of earthworm behavior and their ecological significance.
- Chapter 7. Germ Warfare The dual nature of soils-- as a reservoir for deadly crop and human diseases, while at the same time serving as the primary source for our most powerful antibiotics and biocontrol agents.
PART 3: The Human Factor
- Chapter 8. Endangered Diggers of the Deep The tragic history of human interactions with prairie dogs, a keystone species of the grasslands of the American West, and subsequent impacts on other species such as the black-footed ferret and burrowing owl.
- Chapter 9. The Good Earth Human activities associated with soil erosion and other forms of land degradation, as well as climate change and acid rain, can disrupt the proper functioning of our precious soil resource, and jeopardize our future food security.
Notes and References
Book Jacket Description
There are over one billion organisms in a pinch of soil, and many of them perform functions essential to all life on the planet. Yet we know much more about deep space than about the universe below. In Tales From the Underground, Cornell ecologist David W. Wolfe takes us on a spectacular tour of this unfamiliar subterranean world, introducing us to the bizarre creatures that live there, as well as the devoted scientists who study them.
We follow the progress of discovery from Charles Darwin's experiments with earthworms and Lewis and Clark's first encounter with prairie dogs, to the isolation of streptomycin and other antibiotics from the soil and the use of new genetic tools that are revealing an astonishingly rich ecosystem beneath our feet.
The first stop on this amazing journey takes us deep into the earth's rocky crust, where life may have begun--a world devoid of oxygen and light but safe from asteroid bombardment. The recent discovery of unusual microbes that thrive at these depths today has greatly expanded our notion of earth's biodiversity and has forced us to re-draw the evolutionary tree of life. Many scientists now believe that the total amount of biomass underground exceeds that of the surface. Home to miniscule water bears and microscopic bacteria, mole rats and burrowing owls, the underground reigns supreme.
Wolfe lifts the veil on this hidden world, revealing for the first time what makes subterranean life so unique--and so precious. Soil creatures work hard for us, producing important pharmaceuticals, recycling life's essential elements, and helping plants gather nutrients from below. But human activities could easily disrupt the delicate balance within the underground. As Wolfe so eloquently explains, the future of our species may well depend on how we manage our living soil resource.
An original, awe-inspiring journey through a strange realm, Tales From the Underground will forever alter our appreciation of the natural world around--and beneath--us.
Publisher's Weekly review (May 28, 2001)
The world around us, according to Wolfe, a Cornell University plant physiologist, isn't quite as it appears. Our perspective is skewed because we are "surface chauvinists" when, in fact, a great deal of the earth's biological activity occurs underground. "The latest scientific data suggest that the total biomass of the life beneath our feet is much more vast than all that we observe aboveground." Wolfe does a superb job of describing in nontechnical, accessible terms the major groups of organisms living below ground and the ecological roles they play. Whether he is writing of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls-Wolfe is consistently engaging. He argues convincingly that life on our planet most likely began not in some primordial ocean but rather deep beneath the surface under extreme temperature conditions, and that this information needs to inform our search for extraterrestrial life. These largely unseen ecological communities play surprisingly critical roles in human civilization, from aiding in soil formation to assisting plant growth and from controlling the world's nitrogen cycle to helping curtail erosion. Wolfe, by asserting that many of our current ecological practices run the risk of disrupting the lives of our subterranean neighbors, raises issues and questions that deserve a wide hearing.