Step outside and take a look around you. What do you see; what do you feel? The sun shining on your face and the breeze you feel on your skin are both components that make up our ecosystem, and scientists have been studying how the organisms in this community interact with and affect each other for years.

But, what about the environment that is below the earth we walk on, which is less discernable to our senses?

Scientists are just now discovering a whole new world beneath our feet and New Mexico State University researchers are anxious to learn and publicize the unique relationships between the organisms in the ground and how they work together with the aboveground ecosystem.

With a $240,000 grant from the National Park Service, researchers in the fields of microbial ecology, molecular biology, nematology and soil sciences hope to bring to light this little-studied area of science. The majority of research is being conducted at the White Sands National Monument and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

"This is like exploring a whole new frontier," said Mary Lucero, a molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Jornada Experimental Range. "We are seeing things that no one has looked at before. It is very exciting."

The grant is broken down into two components — research on the belowground ecosystem and study of carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide.

"There are two drivers to the big picture of this research," said Curtis Monger, a professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. "The first goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Since that time, we have put a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. Now, we are looking to see how we can bring that back down.

Everyone knows that it can be brought down through trees, but now we are looking at bringing it down and storing it in other materials — like crystals in the soil. Secondly, there really is a mineralogical beauty associated with this research. We want to bring out that beauty, in addition to all the number-crunching science."

Essentially, the Industrial Revolution saw the replacement of muscle power with machine power driven by burning fossil fuels - first with the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine. People were burning coal, petroleum and natural gas - all of which put carbon dioxide into the air.

Monger is researching the biomineralization of the carbonate in soil to understand the process of how microorganisms make crystals in which carbon dioxide can be stored.

While Monger studies the mineral side of carbon dioxide, Lucero and Adrian Unc, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, are working to identify the kinds of microorganisms that are involved.