The Hidden Wonders of Soil | Jane Zelikova | TED | Summary and Q&A

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The Hidden Wonders of Soil | Jane Zelikova | TED


In this content, the speaker discusses the importance of soil, the role of microbes in carbon sequestration, and the need for innovative agricultural practices to combat climate change.

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Key Insights

  • 🌍 Soils are a diverse and crucial part of the Earth's ecosystem, supporting agriculture, biodiversity, and human life.
  • 🐜 Climate change is impacting ecosystems and driving changes in soil dynamics, such as seed dispersal and microbial communities.
  • 🌱 Plants and soil work together in the carbon cycle, with photosynthesis driving the transformation of carbon. Soil aggregates play a crucial role in carbon sequestration.
  • 🌾 Human activities, such as plowing and land conversion, have led to significant soil carbon loss, threatening food security and fertility.
  • 🌿 Rebuilding soil requires a shift in agricultural practices, emphasizing the role of plants and microbes in carbon storage and water retention.
  • 🔬 Advancements in molecular and computational tools have allowed scientists to study and understand soil microbes, the "wee beasties" that drive the carbon cycle.
  • 💪 Building healthy, carbon-rich soils can benefit farmers by providing more consistent and resilient agricultural operations.
  • 🌱 To improve soil health and contribute to climate mitigation, protecting existing carbon, diversifying crops, and minimizing soil disturbance are key strategies.


Under our feet, there is an unseen world more diverse than all the tropical rainforests combined. Teeming with microbial life and critters, large and small, this hidden world of soil is on every single continent. But most of us know little to nothing about this vast world under our feet. And for most of my life, I was no exception. I grew up [a] ve... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the importance of soil in supporting life on Earth?

Soils are considered to be the skin of the Earth and play a crucial role in supporting agriculture, terrestrial biomes, protecting our food supply, cleaning water, boosting immune systems, and serving as a source of critical medicines. Without soil, we would not be able to eat, and humanity as we know it may not exist.

Q: How does carbon cycle through plants and soil?

Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and, through photosynthesis, combine it with water and sunshine to create sugars. These sugars eventually decompose in the soil, feeding the microbes. The carbon from plants and microbes eventually breaks down and sticks to soil particles, creating soil clumps or aggregates. The majority of soil carbon that is sequestered is actually dead microbes, known as microbial necromass.

Q: What has led to the loss of carbon from soils?

Over the last 12,000 years, human activities such as converting grasslands and forests into agricultural fields and building roads and cities have resulted in the loss of billions of tons of carbon from soils. One major driver of this loss has been plowing, which exposes carbon to decomposition by breaking apart plant roots and soil aggregates.

Q: How can we rebuild soil and increase carbon sequestration?

Rebuilding soil and increasing carbon sequestration requires rethinking our reliance on technology and chemicals and focusing on natural processes. By plowing less, keeping roots in the ground year-round, and promoting diverse plant communities, we can help microbes transform and store more carbon. Protecting existing soil carbon, growing diverse climate-adapted crops, and leaving soil undisturbed are key approaches to building back our soils.

Q: What are some challenges and solutions for increasing carbon in soils?

Challenges include the need to track and measure climate progress, develop climate-resilient crop varieties with deeper roots, and rethink economic models in agriculture to support carbon-sequestering practices. Innovation and research are needed to address these challenges and drive the adoption of practices that help build carbon-rich soils. Time is of the essence as climate change is already impacting ecosystems, including agriculture.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Under our feet is an unseen world of diverse soil microbes and critters that is vital for supporting agriculture and terrestrial life.

  • Over the last 12,000 years, billions of tons of carbon have been lost from the soil due to human activities like agriculture and urbanization.

  • Rebuilding soil and increasing carbon accumulation can be achieved through practices like reducing plowing, growing diverse crops, and supporting microbial activity, which can help mitigate climate change and improve agricultural resilience.

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