How unique and diverse is the invisible life of the Galápagos Islands? That is the key question to which a team of international researchers, led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), is seeking answers. This year, they went on an expedition to the iconic islands to study the microbial life there. Insights from their research can contribute to the conservation of indigenous plant species and, in particular, Scalesia: the giant daisy.
The Galápagos Microbiome Project is a collaboration between scientists from the Netherlands, Ecuador, Spain and Brazil. Their aim is to study the microscopically small forms of life on the Galápagos Islands. That is because important bacteria and fungi live on the roots and leaves of plants, which jointly form the ‘microbiome’. By discovering more about the microbiome, we can also gain a better understanding of how the different species have evolved.
In Darwin’s footsteps
When Charles Darwin set foot on the Galápagos Islands in 1835, he found islands that were so isolated that the plants and animals had developed differently from those on the mainland. This laid the basis for his theory of evolution, which would revolutionise science. However, what Darwin could not see were the microorganisms that lived on the islands. Although the diversity that exists among these bacteria and other microorganisms is not immediately visible, it is nevertheless vital for flora and fauna.
Researchers from the Microbiome Project are therefore treading in Darwin’s footsteps. Project leader Jos Raaijmakers: “This is an invisible world that could not be investigated in detail during Darwin’s era. With the DNA techniques currently available, we can unravel the diversity of microbes and investigate whether the microbial diversity on the different islands matches that of the plant species the microbes live on and in.”
Hope for the endangered giant daisy
“Just like people and animals, plants are also dependent on microbes for their growth, development and health,” says Raaijmakers. Knowledge about microorganisms can therefore contribute to protecting indigenous plants that are endangered by factors such as climate change and invasive species. This is particularly the case for the giant daisy, which is only found on the Galápagos Islands. The plant thrives on fertile ground, so it must compete with agricultural practices. Grazing cattle also form a threat to this unusual species, which can be as small as a shrub but also as big as a tree.
The expedition took place from 25 March to 6 April 2023. The team described it as “a spectacular adventure”. With a ship as their base, the scientists visited 7 islands. There, they found 12 different species of Scalesia from which they took samples of leaves and roots, sometimes under physically demanding conditions. Curious to discover what the expedition was like? Then watch the short film below.
Laboratory research and first results
At the Galapagos Science Centre, a start was made with the lab work. The team processed all the samples, safely stored these and extracted the DNA. Subsequently, the DNA samples were sent to the Netherlands for further investigation using advanced sequencing technology. Now, the team is busy mapping the microbial diversity of the entire island group, with particular attention for the various Scalesia species.
The first results are expected from the lab later this year. That is exciting because the team hopes to discover unique microbes, among other things. So, keep an eye on our website for the latest news!