Lucero's emphasis is on the microbes that live within plants. Using the image of the famous General Sherman, a giant sequoia tree at Sequoia National Park, to illustrate her point, Lucero said, "General Sherman is not just a plant, but a plant bound to about 100,000 different species of microorganisms." The roles most of these microbes play in driving plant growth have not been described.

"What we do know about the microbes that associate with the plant is that they play a crucial role in nutrient cycling, pest resistance, disease prevention and overall adaptation," she said.

Personnel at national parks are charged with protecting natural resources, indigenous plants and indigenous microbes, but with 100,000 microbes being associated with a single plant, and millions more associated with the surrounding soil, many of these microbes have not even been looked at yet.

"At this point, our goal is just to describe all of this diversity because at this moment, we don't really know what's there," Lucero said. "It's like we have discovered a whole new world or galaxy. We have to describe it first, then decide what needs to be protected, what needs to be managed and what needs to be left alone. The technologies available for describing microbial communities are really hitting exponential growth."

Unc is studying the different ways carbon can be taken from the atmosphere and cycled through the belowground ecosystem.

Autotrophs are anything able to photosynthesize and they are the pumps removing the carbon from the air and putting it into the ground. An entire trophic chain is created when the carbon is absorbed into the ground.  Organisms begin to take advantage of the organic material there.

"The most common soil organisms are bacteria and fungi; they are staging the conditions for nutrient cycling for all other organisms," Unc said. "Arthropods and nematodes are consumers and they are very important because they are working as recyclers of nutrients in the system. If there were no consumers then there would be live and dead tissue with nothing to consume them. The carbon and nitrogen would probably demineralize, but very slowly. Having these larger organisms really accelerates the cycle and releases the nitrogen to be put back into circulation in the atmosphere."

Steve Thomas, a professor in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science, said the nematodes are a key component to this collaborative research.

"The nematodes are looking for carbon," Thomas said. "They have to get all of their energy from living material. A nematode cannot eat anything that is dead and get any benefit from it. So, they eat the bacteria that are breaking down dead organic matter in soil to get the carbon-containing molecules they need for energy and growth."

Except for carbon, almost everything else the nematode digests from the bacteria, the nematode has no use for, and excretes back into the soil, Thomas said. These mineralized nutrients are available to plants and other organisms to pick up and reuse.

Working with Holly Risner and David Bustos, with White Sands; and Jonena Hearst, at Guadalupe Mountains; the NMSU and USDA Natural

Resources Conservation Service scientists are conducting the majority of their work at White Sands because it is a great natural laboratory for conducting research and according to statistics from the National Park Service, this monument receives the most visitors annually than any other park service location in the state.

Once real data is available to show to the public, this information can help draw more people to White Sands to learn about the fascinating ecosystems around us, whether they are seen or unseen.

Monger said the goal is to have real data and evidence to present to the public by the middle of 2012. The grant runs through 2013.