Microorganisms as engineers for the Earth’s surface development


Understanding the mechanisms and processes of shaping the Earth’s surface is fundamental to life on Earth and of major interest to geomorphological, geological, soil ecological, microbiological and hydrological sciences. Advances in high-throughput genotyping technology have markedly improved our understanding of the role of microorganisms in chemical transformation of soils and sediments and suggest the enormous potential of microorganisms to shape the Earth surface in close interrelation with climate and tectonic forces. To investigate which microorganisms act as structure engineers and how they control land surface development, we determine microbial community structures and processes in relation to surface processes and climate under natural conditions and environmental simulations in the laboratory. We use an interdisciplinary approach to combine cutting edge technologies from different disciplines and pair with scientists from (bio)geochemistry, soil science and geomorphology in a unique way during all steps of analyses. This approach leads to a better understanding of observations on different time scales and from different professions.


Scientific key questions

  • What is the initial assembly of microbial communities in terrestrial ecosystems and what is their function in nutrient, energy and mass fluxes?
  • Which microbial functions/traits control soil formation and stabilize the Earth‘s surface?
  • How do microbial communities react on changes related to tectonic and climate events?


Study sites

  • Atacama Desert, Chile
  • Chilean Coastal Cordillera, Chile
  • Ice-free oasis in Antarctica (King George Island, Larsemann Hills)
  • Namib Desert, Namibia
  • Southern Alps, New Zealand


  • DFG EarthShape (SPP 1803): Microbiological stabilization of the Earth‘s surface across a climate gradient (www.earthshape.net/)
  • DFG Antarctic Research (SPP 1158): Microbial-mediated soil formation in maritime Antarctica under simulated environmental conditions
  • DFG Antarctic Research (SPP 1158): From single pioneers to complex communities: Simultaneous discrimination of composition and inferring species inter-actions of fossil as well as modern pro- and eukaryotic microbial communities
  • BMBF Programme SPACES: Signals of climate and landscape change preserved in southern African GeoArchives


Partners (selected)

Prof. Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Technical University Berlin (TUB), Germany

Dr. Jean-Pierre de Vera, German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany

Prof. Dr. Friedhelm von Blanckenburg, German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), Germany

Prof. Dr. Thomas Scholten & Dr. Peter Kühn, University of Tuebingen, Germany

Dr. Carsten W. Müller, Technical University Munich (TUM), Germany

Dr. Rómulo Oses. Center of Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA) & CRIDESAT - University of Atacama, Chile

Dr. Oscar Seguel. Department of Engineering and Soil Science, Faculty of Agronomy, University of Chile, Chile

Prof. Dr. Thomas Friedl, University of Goettingen, Germany

Prof. Dr. Niels Hovius, German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), Germany

Prof. Liane Benning, German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), Germany

Dr. Kai Mangelsdorf, German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), Germany

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