Soil biodiversity at continental scale, a call for support and collaboration

By Alberto Orgiazzi, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Directorate D – Sustainable Resources, Land Resources Unit, Ispra, Italy

Over the past 10 years, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), base in Ispra, Italy (nearby Lake Maggiore… a great place to work at) has been responsible for the organisation of the largest soil survey ever to be carried out across Europe. Named the LUCAS (Land Use/Land Cover Area Frame Survey) Soil, this campaign kicked off in 2009, with 19,000 samples being collected from across Europe. A second round of sampling was carried out in 2015 from about 23,000 points all over the continent, the soil samples of which are now being physically and chemically analysed. The results of these initial surveys are summarized in a new review paper: LUCAS Soil, the largest expandable soil dataset for Europe.

1,000 locations (and their land cover type) across Europe where soil samples will be collected,
as part of LUCAS Soil survey, for soil biodiversity assessment in 2018. Image from Orgiazzi et al. 2017

So far, the focus of LUCAS was exclusively on measuring soil properties such as texture, cation exchange capacity, pH, organic carbon, nitrogen and many others. One element was missing from this picture: the ‘alive’ component of soil, the soil biodiversity. The good news is that this element will be included in the third round of LUCAS, making it the first ever pan-European assessment of soil biodiversity.

Thanks partly to the success of the first ever Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, which is demonstrating the increasing interest in soil life not only among scientists but also among policy makers, the JRC plans to analyse the biodiversity of soil organisms about 1000 of the total 26,000 points by means of DNA-fingerprinting techniques. The second piece of good news, at least to me, is that I am the postdoctoral researcher responsible for all that. I am very excited at this opportunity, and when they offered it to me I immediately said: I’m in. However, I admit that I am also pretty scared. Of course, I am not alone in this effort, and my colleagues are already helping me, but still I have been the one who drafted the protocols for sampling, storing and shipping the soil samples, and selected the organisms to be considered. This is likely one of the most challenging and, at the same time, fascinating tasks of my life, at least from a professional point of view.

Would you like to put yourself in my shoes? I have had a year and a half to organise everything, from the selection of sampling points to the choice of protocols for DNA extraction and amplification. So, I spent the last few months thinking about possible ways to plan the future work. Then I got a brainwave. Why not turn this responsibility into an opportunity? Now I have in my hands the possibility to contribute the European part of this global map/assessment of soil biodiversity. And I do not want to do this alone.

I am already in touch with people in Australia and Africa that are studying the distribution of soil life through DNA tools (Bissett et al., 2016; African Soil Microbiology Project). However, I am sure there are several other research groups worldwide that are planning to do something similar in the near future, for example in the frame of the recently proposed National Microbiome Project in the US and the China Soil Microbiome Initiative in China. And, perhaps, you are also planning some sampling of soil biodiversity. Those are the people I am addressing; let’s bring our ideas and efforts together in order to develop a common strategy. That is the purpose of the call that we have recently launched in our review (Orgiazzi et al., 2017). I am issuing this public call in order to reach the broadest possible audience.

You can contribute in many ways. You can propose possible strategies for large-scale DNA fingerprinting of soil organisms (see our review for details). And you can also actively contribute to both LUCAS Soil and global soil biodiversity assessment. In 2018, you may consider the possibility to collect some soil samples (not just across Europe) and analyse them through our protocols (by the way, we decided to use those proposed by the Earth Microbiome Project – get in touch for details). In this way, you will have your own LUCAS Soil points. That will make you able to compare your data to ours (1,000 samples… not bad) and address ecological/biological questions of your interest. At the same time, you will help out with the development of the first global soil biodiversity maps. Last but not least, you may also consider the possibility to visit one or more LUCAS points, collect your own samples and make whatever additional analysis (e.g. mesofauna and earthworm sampling). Then, we can combine our data. What more could anyone wish for?

See ways you can contribute and sign-up here.

I really look forward to receiving your inputs. My email is

Some of the material (1,000 polystyrene boxes and 4,000 ice blocks) that will be used to collect
fresh soil samples for soil biodiversity analysis. Image by A. Orgiazzi


Bissett A, et al. (2016) Introducing BASE — the biomes of Australian soil environments soil microbial diversity database. Giga Sci, 5: 21.

Orgiazzi A, et al. (2017) LUCAS Soil, the largest expandable soil dataset for Europe: a review. Eur J Soil Sci, DOI: 10.1111/ejss.12499