Indiana University: Data reveals earth contains nearly 1 trillion species

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Soils are one of the largest reservoirs of microbial diversity on Earth. It is not uncommon for a gram of soil to contain 1 trillion cells and 10,000 species of bacteria, including Actinomyces israelii (pictured). | Photo by GrahamColm at English Wikipedia

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Biologists at Indiana University released data from a study that concludes earth may be home to nearly one trillion species.

The study, which was the largest-ever analysis of microbial data, also reveals an ecological law that concludes 99.999 percent of species remain undiscovered.

Jay Lennon | Photo by Jean Lennon

Jay Lennon | Photo by Jean Lennon

The authors of the study are Jay T. Lennon, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, and Kenneth J. Locey, a postdoctoral fellow in the department. Their study appears today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists combined microbial, plant and animal community datasets from government, academic and citizen science; the data represents over 5.6 million microscopic and nonmicroscopic species from 35,000 locations across all the world’s oceans and continents, except Antarctica.

“Estimating the number of species on Earth is among the great challenges in biology,” Lennon said. “Our study combines the largest available datasets with ecological models and new ecological rules for how biodiversity relates to abundance. This gave us a new and rigorous estimate for the number of microbial species on Earth.

“Until recently, we’ve lacked the tools to truly estimate the number of microbial species in the natural environment,” he added. “The advent of new genetic sequencing technology provides an unprecedentedly large pool of new information.”

Ken Locey | Photo by Josh McCullock

Ken Locey | Photo by Josh McCullock

The study’s results also suggest that actually identifying every microbial species on Earth is an almost unimaginably huge challenge. In order to put the task into perspective, the scientists bring up the Earth Microbiome Project — a global multidisciplinary project to identify microscope organisms. Thus far, the project has cataloged less than 10 million species.

“Of those cataloged species, only about 10,000 have ever been grown in a lab, and fewer than 100,000 have classified sequences,” Lennon said. “Our results show that this leaves 100,000 times more microorganisms awaiting discovery — and 100 million to be fully explored. Microbial biodiversity, it appears, is greater than ever imagined.”

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