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The Atlas of Dirt: Stalking the Planet’s DNA

 It comes from places as diverse as Antarctic permafrost and Kansas farmland. Her samples are the starting point for the Earth Microbiome Project, an epic effort to figure out how all the world’s microbes collectively support life.

Every gram of soil contains tens of thousands of species—up to 100 terabytes of genetic data. Those critters sequester carbon, fertilize plants, decompose organic material, and do a lot of other work we barely understand. Problem is, the microbes are so interdependent that isolating the most industrious organisms is tricky. “They live together in communities,” Jansson says. “It’s hard to break up those associations.” So instead the scientists are hunting DNA, isolating all the genes in soil and seawater, regardless of which organism they belong to.

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