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Patching Up The Prairie With Microorganisms

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The vast prairies that once covered the Midwest are mostly gone now. But ecologists studying the vestiges of this ecosystem are finding new species that may prove useful.

In one patch of restored prairie, Wayne Nichols, professor of biology at Washington University, has discovered more than 500 species of algae, most of them new to science. One, Sphaerellocystis aplanosporum, performs the unique task of removing iron from the soil. This iron-eater also can extract the metal from laboratory cultures and select iron from among a group of elements. Another species craves silica. Its presence helps make clay soils more malleable. Nichols is cataloging these new species in a comprehensive data base that also characterizes the enzymes in the tiny organisms and how they react to antibiotics. Ultimately, say researchers, science could put these newly discovered species to work: The iron-eater might be used to help balance soils with too much iron, or to clean up contaminated soils.EDITED BY PAMELA J. BLACK

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