Digging Deep for WA’s Underground Inhabitants

Project Plan

MicroBlitz is a crowdsourced, citizen science project that seeks to identify the communities of soil microbes that inhabit Western Australia’s (WA) soils. Microbes represent one of the most important components of soil, playing a myriad of roles from regulating greenhouse gases to building high-yielding and pest resistant crops. Identification of the microbial species inhabiting soils across WA is a required first step for any research efforts wishing to tackle how these tiny microbes affect life above ground. The information generated by this project will help us gain a better understanding of soil-based microbial communities and their impact on maintaining and improving the sustainability of Australian soils. This project will also help expand our knowledge about how microbial communities are influenced by factors such as land use (agriculture and mining), climate change, and rehabilitation practices.
Soil in hands

Soil in hands.

MicroBlitz is a crowdsourced, citizen science project that seeks to identify the communities of soil microbes that inhabit Western Australia’s (WA) soils. To accomplish our goal MicroBlitz ambitiously plans to collect and analyse soil samples at a 100 square kilometre resolution across WA by employing a crowdsourcing approach. MicroBlitz recruits people to become citizen scientists, asking them to collect soil samples, which are then mailed to our facilities at UWA for analysis, including DNA sequencing.
Close up of hands with plant and soil in lab.

Close up of hands with plant and soil in lab.

The outcome of these analyses is revealing the amazing biodiversity, abundance, and distribution of microbial species living within our soils. MicroBlitz also serves another important goal: it provides a tangible way for people to connect with their environment, contributing to its care while getting involved in a world-class biotechnology-based project. In the 18 months since inception, MicroBlitz has engaged with more than 3,500 people through outreach activities including: National Science Week (2013 & 14), The Caravan & Camping Show (2014) and talks to local community groups, including Mens Sheds and Probus Clubs, Science Rocks Forum (Albany) and the Extreme Science Experience (Perth), which spread the concept to over 600 secondary students. So far, more than 500 people have registered as ‘MicroBlitzers’ (soil samplers) and more than 2000 sampling kits have been dispatched, of which over 65% have been returned with soil samples. To date, all returned soil samples have been processed through to the point where the DNA has been extracted. With the commissioning of the newly fitted out MicroBlitz lab at UWA in late November (2014) we will begin an intensified period of DNA sequencing and bioinformatics analysis on our store of samples. It is expected that these results will be available in early 2015, accessible through a live and virtual WA Microbial Map showing where samples have already been taken and areas where samples still need to be collected. Once the initial store of samples has been processed it is expected that the turn around time between receiving a sample and having results available to the sampler will be approximately 4 – 6 weeks.
Photograph of children getting involved with Microblitz.

Photograph of children getting involved with Microblitz.

Your Support

Screenshot of Microblitz website.

Screenshot of Microblitz website.

MicroBlitz is an ongoing project that is proving very popular with the general public and we are keen to enhance the experience for our samplers and to reach and engage a wider audience. Your support will help us meet the costs of improving how data is collected and processed, with the development of a field app. Your support will also enable us to add interactive elements to our website that will provide feedback about results to our samplers without delay and in a way that is meaningful to a range of audiences from school students to international scientists. The development and release of our proposed field app will streamline how samplers upload location data, increasing the accuracy, efficiency and scientific rigour of this important step and conveniently dispense with the need to manually fill in a form. The creation of new interactive elements to our website will help us fulfil our commitment to engage our community of citizen scientists in the project literally from the ‘ground up’. Through adding new levels of functionality to the existing MicroBlitz website samplers will be able to access their individual results, as well as all other results, and view the microbial map as it is charted in real-time.
Photograph of the Microblitz team.

(From Left to Right) Research Manager Dr Deepak Kumaresan, Project Manager Ms Deborah Bowie, Project Leader Winthrop Professor Andrew Whiteley

Both of these developments will form the basis of a comprehensive follow-up community engagement campaign to support our crowd sourcing initiative to recruit more samplers. The level of accessibility and information provided through the proposed field app and interactive website will enable ‘MicroBlitzers’ to design and conduct their own investigations and focus their sampling efforts by identifying gaps in the evolving WA Microbial Map. Right now we need your support to move forward with both the design and implementation of the field app and the visualisation of results to our growing community of samplers. So please dig deep to help us all discover more about the mysterious world of soil microbes.

Project Members

Winthrop Professor Andrew Whiteley
Project Leader

Overseeing the research aspect of project, implementation of general goals and interpretation of results.

Dr Deepak Kumaresan
Research Manager

In charge of data generation, analyses and interpretation of results.

Ms Deborah Bowie
Project Manager

Implementation of Science Communication, community engagement strategy and development of project goals.

Over 30 UWA Guild Student Volunteers

Social Media, Laboratory work, community engagement, soil sampling and website updating.