Researchers aim to uncover the secrets of microbial biodiversity in Tartu

People have been living with microbes for millions of years. But it is only in recent years that we have begun to discover the secrets of microbial biodiversity, as these species invisible to the naked eye can be successfully identified in nature only by latest molecular methods.

Microorganisms play an important role in supporting humans’ mental and physical health, including strengthening the immune system. If there is a shortage of microorganisms inside and around us, the risk of allergies and autoimmune diseases increases. Many people live in cities and their exposure to biodiverse nature may be limited. However, researchers do not yet fully know the state of soil microbes in urban areas and how urban development helps to maintain and increase favourable conditions for microorganisms.

To be able to make decisions that support both biodiversity and the health of the urban population when planning the urban environment, researchers of the University of Tartu, led by Professor of Botany Meelis Pärtel from the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, have undertaken an extensive analysis of microbes in the soil of the city of Tartu.

“We are mapping the biodiversity in Tartu’s soil. If we find out the conditions in which the number of good microbes is the largest, it can be taken into account in the future in urban planning and supporting the health of the urban population,” explained Meelis Pärtel. “We would also like to know whether Rohemeeter, which was created last year to assess the biodiversity of landscapes, can also measure the biodiversity of microbes,“ added Pärtel.

In the study, researchers are closely cooperating with paediatricians of Tartu University Hospital, who, led by Professor of Paediatrics Vallo Tillmann, have studied the impact of the environment on the development of childhood allergies, type 1 diabetes and other immune-mediated diseases for a long time. “We know that early exposure to a species-rich environment affects the development of the child’s immune system and can reduce the risk of asthma. With this survey, we would like to find out where the number of good microbes is the highest in Tartu, what is the biodiversity situation in the yards of kindergartens and schools and whether there is a link to people’s health indicators,” said Tillmann.

The results of the study “Tartu – City of Good Microbes” are also eagerly awaited by the city of Tartu, which stands for the health and well-being of its residents. “The city of Tartu highly values the contribution of the University of Tartu to biodiversity research. The expected results will provide insight into the health of our population and additional information for making urban planning decisions in the future. In Tartu as a smart city, this kind of cooperation that supports each other is essential and extremely important,” said Gea Kangilaski, Deputy Mayor of Tartu.

The team of researchers and students plans to collect samples from parks, private and public gardens, yards of schools and kindergartens, sports grounds and indoor flower pots, among other places. All collected samples will be entered into the eBiodiversity portal on Estonian biodiversity by using the smart application Legulus developed by the University of Tartu Natural History Museum.

The project is part of the activities of the centre of excellence EcoChange, led by Professor Ülo Niinemets from the Estonian University of Life Sciences. The team of the University of Tartu is led by Professor of Plant Ecology Martin Zobel.

Further information: Meelis Pärtel, Professor of Botany of the University of Tartu Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, 511 5058,

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