Jo Handelsman on the Surprising News That the Earth is Running Out of Dirt

Jo Handelsman
I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Jo: 05:23 There’s something like between twice and 10 times as many bacterial cells in us as there are human cells in us, so they are us and we are them. They outnumber our cells quite dramatically. And they also have tremendously more genetic capacity. That’s the part that I find the most fascinating is they-
Alan: 05:23 What does that mean? What do you mean by that?
Jo: 05:50 Well, if you think of the complexity and the number of different genes in the human genome, if you take all the bacteria together, they exceed our own genetic complexity or capacity by somewhere between 100 and 1000 fold. So that means that they have 100 to 1000 fold more different kinds of pathways and functions and abilities to do things than we ourselves do.
That’s Dr Jo Handelsman, who studies microbes at the University of Wisconsin – not only the vast array of microbes that live on and in us, but also the even greater number that lurk in the soil beneath our feet. I talked with Jo about why both the microbes within and below us are so important to our survival. But we began our conversation, which took place last fall, talking about the weather…which—these days—often leads to talk that’s far from small.
Alan: 00:01 Jo, I’m so glad to be talking to you today. I’m especially glad because you’re in Wisconsin and I’m in New York, and you had to drive through a snowstorm to get to the studio. What’s happening there?
Jo: 00:13 I wish I knew what was happening. We have had two snowstorms already in Madison, Wisconsin, and it’s only October-
Alan: 00:22 And this isn’t even Thanksgiving yet.
Jo: 00:25 No, this is Halloween-
Alan: 00:27 Right.
Jo: 00:27 And we still have beautiful orange and red and green leaves on trees, and we have snow sticking to them. It was about the slipperiest snow I’ve ever felt. So, the traffic was extremely slow. There wasn’t that much of it. It was only about four or five inches, which is nothing for Madison, but it was just so slippery that people were sliding off the roads at every turn. So, what should have been about a 25 minute drive was an hour and a half, so it was a white knuckle trip. But that’s climate change for us, right?
Alan: 01:07 Is this really an example, can we cite this for instance, as an example of the climate crisis, I call it? Because for a long time, scientists were reluctant to pin the moniker climate change on any individual event because it’s weather rather than climate in most cases. But do you think you can call something like what you went through this morning the effect of climate change?
Jo: 01:35 No, I probably can’t. We still, I think, are hesitant to pin any individual weather event on climate change. But when you have these patterns of storms coming at a greater intensity over and over and over or at a different time of year, as was the case today and last week when we had the snowstorms, then the pattern becomes climate change. I think one of the topics we’ll talk about today is the increase in intensity of rainstorms in the Midwest over the last 60 or so years, and that is clearly more than a weather trend. That’s a climate trend.
Alan: 02:21 Something that really interests me a lot, you know, they talk about the butterfly effect and chaos theory, and it’s become part of our culture to talk about the butterfly effect where some little action by a little actor can have eventually a huge effect. I think a great example of that is your work in soil and how we all depend on soil to eat, to survive, and the condition of soil is effected by this little guy, the bacterium, and not only soil but everything else in our lives. This is, is it only lately that we’ve begun to understand the importance of bacteria in our lives?
Jo: 03:13 I think it’s certainly become an intensified impression over the last 15 or so years because we’ve begun to study not only bacteria in the environment and bacteria as causes of disease, but bacteria as causes of health. I think that’s been one of the most startling discoveries that has really caught the public’s attention.
Alan: 03:37 Like what? What’s an example of that?
Jo: 03:39 Well, there’s a very strong association between gut bacteria in humans and obesity and diabetes and colon cancer, certain types of colon cancers. And although-
Alan: 03:52 Does that mean persons’ with obesity, pardon me, does that mean for instance with obesity that you can identify a certain set of microbia that contribute to obesity? Or is it really very complicated?
Jo: 04:07 It’s pretty complicated but the truly groundbreaking experiment was when they transferred bacteria from the guts of lean and obese people into germ-free mice, and the mice became either lean or obese depending upon which bacteria they received. Of course, that was an entire community of organisms. Hundreds of different species. But there are certainly patterns of types of bacteria, and these are pretty broad groups. It’s not individual species that there’s preponderance of one phylum or big group of bacteria over another in the obese condition in many people. And it’s not 100%, it’s certainly not the only cause, but it is one of the contributing factors we think.
Alan: 04:59 The more I read about the microbiome, the most in awe I am of them because we not only live because of them, we are them to a great extent. What’s the current estimate of the number of bacteria that are in and on the human body?
Jo: 05:23 There’s something like between twice and 10 times as many bacterial cells in us as there are human cells in us, so they are us and we are them. They outnumber our cells quite dramatically. And they also have tremendously more genetic capacity. That’s the part that I find the most fascinating is they-
Alan: 05:23 What does that mean? What do you mean by that?
Jo: 05:50 Well, if you think of the complexity and the number of different genes in the human genome, if you take all the bacteria together, they exceed our own genetic complexity or capacity by somewhere between 100 and 1000 fold. So that means that they have 100 to 1000 fold more different kinds of pathways and functions and abilities to do things than we ourselves do.
Alan: 06:15 Would these little guys, not any one individual, right? It’s the collection of them?
Jo: 06:21 It’s the collection. It’s the entire community put together. And that’s really what has come out in, I think, the last 15 or so years is this tremendous biochemical and genetic capacity of these organisms and that’s why they have the ability to shape so many different diseases because they’re-
Alan: 06:41 So, to figure out, to untangle the web of influence they have one us must be extremely difficult because if they have all of those opportunities to be different and to change and to communicate and to effect one another, then the number of ways in which they can effect us seems to multiply exponentially. So, how can we figure out the interaction and the effect it has on us?
Jo: 07:10 It’s certainly challenging, and that’s why we rarely get it down to a single species having an effect because there’s enormous redundancy as well. There can be two or three or more organisms that have the same ability in a community. And so, if you take one out or add one in, it often doesn’t have as dramatic effect as we might have expected based on the function of the whole community. So that’s one problem. And the other is just the variation between people. So, we talked about the obesity or the diabetes data on the microbiome. No two people will have the identical microbiome, so it’s not like what we can do with the human genome where there are specific mutations that are associated with disease and all people who have that certain mutation have the same genetic sequence. It’s not quite that simple with the microbes. It’s certainly a much more complex community.
But there have been some pretty remarkable experiments in mice where we can take it apart a little bit more precisely, and the number of different characteristics of the mice that can be changed with the microbiome.
Alan: 03:37 Like what? What’s an example of that?
Jo: 03:39 Well, there’s a very strong association between gut bacteria in humans and obesity and diabetes and colon cancer, certain types of colon cancers. And although-
Alan: 03:52 Does that mean persons’ with obesity, pardon me, does that mean for instance with obesity that you can identify a certain set of microbia that contribute to obesity? Or is it really very complicated?
Jo: 04:07 It’s pretty complicated but the truly groundbreaking experiment was when they transferred bacteria from the guts of lean and obese people into germ-free mice, and the mice became either lean or obese depending upon which bacteria they received. Of course, that was an entire community of organisms. Hundreds of different species. But there are certainly patterns of types of bacteria, and these are pretty broad groups. It’s not individual species that there’s preponderance of one phylum or big group of bacteria over another in the obese condition in many people. And it’s not 100%, it’s certainly not the only cause, but it is one of the contributing factors we think.
There is some evidence now from here at the University of Wisconsin, on propensity for Alzheimer’s disease and the microbiome. There are particular metabolites or chemicals that some bacteria produce that seems to make people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s or are more these chemicals are elevated in people who have Alzheimer’s. We-
Alan: 08:54 So, how do they get up to the brain from the gut?
Jo: 08:57 Oh, that’s one of the great questions. That’s something that my lab is really interested in. My hypothesis is that it’s many different ways, that sometimes the chemical itself will travel. But I would bet that more often, it’s the chemical stimulating the Vagus nerve, which is the big nerve that connects the brain and the gut, and that it’s that process and then it’s just an electrical impulse from there.
Alan: 09:24 You know, I’ve read a little bit about this. There’s a guy in the Netherlands called [Schoepperyan 00:09:30], probably are aware of him.
Jo: 09:33 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alan: 09:34 And he, I think, he seems to have done some early work on how the microbiome and the gut effects the Vagus nerve in some way and can get into the brain past the blood brain barrier and cause Parkinson’s, or at least have an effect on Parkinson’s on dopamine production in the brain. I’m very interested in that because I have Parkinson’s, so, what, cure my Parkinson’s for me in the next 30 seconds.
Jo: 10:07 Well, I would love to. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it ever since I heard that you had Parkinson’s, and I’ve been reading everything I can and just last night, I read an article on Parkinson’s and the microbiome. The picture they painted in that article was much more complex, that they couldn’t develop as strong a statistical connection between the composition of the microbiome and the propensity for Parkinson’s. But I don’t think it’s going to be that long before we can begin to manipulate the microbiome to achieve particular signals. And I think Parkinson’s is a great example. I’m working with a group here at Madison on exactly that question. What happens with the microbiome as Parkinson’s progresses or with people who have it or don’t have it? Or have a precondition versus the full-blown disease? So, I hope to have an answer, not in the next 30 seconds, but hopefully in the next 30 years.
Alan: 11:07 I’m sorry, your time is up.
Jo: 11:09 All right, well we’ll try to get you an answer soon. But it’s definitely a-
Alan: 11:13 All right, after we get off the microphone, send me a link to the paper you were talking about. I’d love to see it.
Jo: 11:20 I will. I will for sure.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 11:22 The interesting thing is that what we’ve just been talking about is what we’re used to hearing about microbes, is that they cause us trouble. But I know you have the opposite view, in a way. Some of them do cause us trouble, but don’t the vast majority of them help us?
Jo: 11:44 Absolutely. There are only about 80 species that we know of that are actual full-blown pathogens. But there are thousands and thousands of species that benefit us in their environmental effects, in the soil, in the atmosphere, and in our own bodies. And in just about every process that we run on earth or in our own health, the microbes play a role and that spans from the kinds of neurological disease or health that we’ve been talking about from depression to Parkinson’s all the way to climate change. And the microbes were here long before we were, billions of years before we were. They shaped the earth that we know today. In fact, the biggest event in the earth’s history was the big oxygenation event, as we like to call it, and that was-
Alan: 12:37 When did that happen? Because we were anerobic before that, right?
Jo: 12:37 That’s right. Free of oxygen-
Alan: 12:44 And what happened? Why did we suddenly switch to a form of life that dominates by taking in oxygen? When did that happen and how did that happen?
Jo: 12:56 Well, about 3.8 to 3.5 billion years ago, bacteria called cyanobacteria evolved that began to produce oxygen using the power of the sun. So, they’re photosynthetic bacteria and they produce oxygen very routinely. They still do today. Their ancient relatives did the same thing. And eventually, the oxygen began to build up from the … The oceans became saturated with oxygen, and then it began to be released from the oceans into the atmosphere. And that made the atmosphere oxygenated, which was the first step. But then an even, just as important step was that as oxygen molecules began to be split by the UVlight from the sun, you would get single oxygen atoms. And when a single oxygen atom could react with an O2 molecule, which is the kind of oxygen we breathe, they would form O3. Well, that’s ozone. And the ozone began to accumulate in the stratosphere.
So now, we had an oxygenated atmosphere so we could carry on the aerobic respiration that we know of today in many, many organisms, including us. But then an even, just as important step was that as oxygen molecules began to be split by the UV light from the sun, you would get single oxygen atoms. And when a single oxygen atom could react with an O2 molecule, which is the kind of oxygen we breathe, they would form O3. Well, that’s ozone. And the ozone began to accumulate in the stratosphere. But then, the ozone layer began to protect the surface of the earth from some of the UV radiation that the sun emits that made life on land impossible before that. And so, it was the ozone layer that allowed life to migrate from the oceans onto land.
Alan: 14:34 So, that was a huge, a huge boost, not just a boost, opened the door to the possibility of people like us eventually evolving-
Jo: 14:47 Yep, absolutely-
Alan: 14:48 And life as we know it. And those cyanobacteria, I’ve heard you say are still hugely important in protecting us against the climate crisis.
Jo: 15:01 Oh absolutely because they fix carbon. They represent about half of the carbon fixation on earth. And of course, trees and plants are very important but the oceans are just as important and it’s the photosynthetic bacteria that fix carbon. They take carbon out of the air, out of the form of carbon dioxide, and turn it into food for themselves.
Alan: 15:28 So, humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the air along with methane and I guess other bad stuff, but the cyanobacteria in the oceans are soaking it up. Half of all the carbon that’s soaked up is done by these bacteria?
Jo: 15:46 Yes. Half of photosynthesis-
Alan: 15:48 Wow-
Jo: 15:49 Is [crosstalk 00:15:49]-
Alan: 15:49 So, is there a danger if we screw around with the oceans too much, we’re going to kill that capability too?
Jo: 15:55 Oh sure. We can mess up anything.

MUSIC BRIDGE

Alan: 15:59 So, meanwhile, there’s the ocean. I mean, the two kinds of earth I’m most aware of are the ocean and the land, where the soil is. How much a role does bacteria play in soil? When I think of soil, I think of it as something you can grow something in. So, how dependent are we on bacteria to grow stuff that we can eat and build houses with?
Jo: 16:28 We’re completely dependent. So, soil is a mixture of pulverized rock that has been weathered by the elements and by bacteria over a very, very long time, millennia. And then it becomes colonized by bacteria and plants, and then eventually animals. And as those organisms grow and die, the bacteria decompose what’s left of them and that releases carbon and all sorts of other nutrients into the soil, and that’s what makes what we call the organic component of the soil that gives it its rich black color, if you’re in Wisconsin, the black color. Not all soils are black, of course. And that’s what gives it its life giving properties. That’s why we can grow plants in it is that it’s this dynamic rich ecosystem. There are more organisms in soil than any other ecosystem we know. It’s the most biologically diverse environment. And that’s because these bacteria have diversified throughout the soil.
Alan: 17:36 Do we have an estimate, by the way, of how many species exist of microorganisms?
Jo: 17:45 Well, my lab did an estimate a number of years ago where, for the soil, and we ended up with a range of between 4000 species and 40000 species per gram of soil, which is like a small teaspoonful. And that was as close as we could get. We know that there are, of course, many, many more thousands of species of that. Some people say there are a few million species of bacteria, but I think we’re so far from describing all of bacterial life that it’s kind of hard to know.
Alan: 18:19 You mean there may be even kinds of bacteria that we haven’t discovered yet?
Jo: 18:24 Absolutely. Every time we do a DNA analysis of an environment, we usually find new kinds of bacteria that hadn’t been seen before because we can’t culture many of them. And that was the means for 150 years of microbiology. That was how we assessed the microbes of an environment was through culturing. Now that we’ve moved to a combination of culturing and DNA based methods, we can see organisms that won’t grow in culture but we can see that their signature is there and their signatures are often quite divergent, quite different from the ones that we can culture.
Alan: 19:02 So, we mentioned how messing around with the ocean can really effect the atmosphere. But we don’t hear much about soil and the bacteria’s so important to the soil and to our lives on the planet until we figure out a way to develop-
Jo: 19:02 Uh-oh, what happened?
Alan: 19:25 A food supply without soil that really serves the whole planet, we’re in danger if we mess around with the soil too much. We don’t hear about that too much though. What should we know about soil?
Jo: 19:41 The soil is really the source of 96% of our food, and a lot of the balance of life on earth. So, I think it’s one of the most unappreciated aspects of our planet. But it’s ubiquitous on land, of course, it’s all around us. We use it for building, for making pottery, for building roads, and of course, for growing most of our food. And the bacteria are critical for the soil as are plants, and a cycle that occurs between the plants and the bacteria give soil its beauty and its structure and its health. As the plants grow, they fix carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and they put almost half of their carbon into their roots, which is really interesting because you’d think that they would build themselves above ground with their carbon. When in fact, most plants shuttle a lot of their carbon to their roots and then about a third of that ends up outside the roots. And plants are not-
Alan: 20:49 What effect does that have? Are they feeding the bacteria? What are they doing-
Jo: 20:51 Exactly.
Alan: 20:51 Oh yeah?
Jo: 20:53 Yeah, plants are not … They’re not wasteful.
Alan: 20:54 That was just a wild guess on my part-
Jo: 20:56 You know, they’re not wasting … That was a great guess because that’s who’s living around them on their roots. And they exude all this carbon into the area around the roots. The bacteria eat it, and one of the thing that bacteria produce among the many, many ways that they will use that carbon, is that they produce these long sticky strands of polysaccharides that stick soil particles together. So, one of the things that gives soil it’s big structure, you know how you can get kind of a clod of soil and it sticks together-
Alan: 21:31 Yeah.
Jo: 21:31 That’s because of the bacterial polysaccharides. And so one of the things that, for example, my lab is interested in is how do we increase that process and perhaps encourage the plants to excrete more carbon into the area around their roots? And then encourage the bacteria to produce more polysaccharide to give soil more strength and resilience against-
Alan: 21:55 Well what’s the effect of that stickiness of the soil? Why is that a good thing?
Jo: 22:00 Well, part of it is that it gives soil the architecture that it needs to have for good growth. If you imagine soil all as little particles as sand, it can get packed down really hard and it’s not as healthy for plants. But if you imagine those big clods, there are a lot of spaces for movement of air and water through the soil, and it’s better for plant growth. But even more importantly, when we get a hard rain and as I was saying when we were talking about climate change before, one of the trends we’ve seen is of a sharp increase of the very heavy precipitation events in the Midwest in particular over the last 50 years. And those very hard rains will break up soil particles and wash them away.
I’ll be back with Jo Handelsman after a short break, wjen Jo explains the ironic and scary fact that the very farming methods we’ve practiced for thousands of years are putting our ability to feed ourselves in danger.

MIDROLL
This is Clear + Vivid – and now back to my conversation with Dr Jo Handelsman
Alan: 22:53 So, Jo, are we doing things to the soil around the world that’s putting us in danger? I mean, we hear so much about the dangers of the human causes or the human involvement in climate change. What are we, it sounds like soil is looming as just as big a problem in terms of human activity. What are we doing that’s endangering us with regard to soil?
Jo: 23:24 We’re causing the soil to erode quite rapidly. If you look at the rate of erosion from all of, for example, the US Department of Agriculture takes soil erosion data every few years, and they publish the overall rates. The last report they had reported that soil was eroding on average across the United States about 3.7 to four tons per acre per year, which doesn’t mean much to most people. But when you think that soil can be produced at most a half a ton per acre per year, and probably in many soils much less than that, that’s not-
Alan: 24:07 But when you say it can be produced, you mean if you just leave it alone and let nature take its course?
Jo: 24:15 Exactly, exactly. Just the natural soil genesis process. It takes hundreds of years to make just one, you know, half an inch of soil. And so, if we’re eroding at 10, and in some areas even 100 times faster than the soil’s being produced, that’s just not sustainable by any measure. But the story gets worse than that because these very hard rainstorms are increasing the rate of erosion. And so that roughly four tons per acre per year probably is an underestimate in the years to come because we’ve seen a steady rise. It’s been essentially a nonstop increase in hard rains in the Midwest over the last 50 years-
Alan: 25:06 Oh so, the increased rain that may be a function of climate change is eroding the soil faster so that there’s like a vicious cycle happening.
Jo: 25:21 That’s right. Because we erode the soil and that actually contributes in some ways to climate change because carbon can be released as a gas from eroded soil, so it may end up increasing climate change. And then, if climate change is contributing to these hard rainstorms, then more soil erodes. And because we’ve been plowing our soils for so long and most farmers, about two-thirds of farmers still use the standard old-fashioned plow, that breaks up these soil particles and that’s the most destructive thing we do. It’s one of the things that we disagree with Thomas Jefferson on. He said once that the greatest invention in human history was the moldboard plow. I would say that that has been the cause of most civilizations to self destruct than probably any implement than has ever been invented. So, he was wrong about that and a few other things.
Alan: 26:20 What a wonderful example of being smart and not seeing unintended consequences.
Jo: 26:27 Exactly. And if you don’t look at the history of soil, it’s hard to see on a human, normal human life scale. But now it’s becoming more and more evident because there are more and more areas in the United States that just don’t have anymore soil-
Alan: 26:44 Really? Wow.
Jo: 26:46 Yeah, you can fly over Iowa, for example, and see that nice dark brown land after it’s been plowed except there are these white spots sticking through, these sort of light tan spots, and those are areas where they’re down to the subsoil or bedrock. There’s just no topsoil. And I heard recently that 25% of Iowa has lost its topsoil-
Alan: 27:11 Wow.
Jo: 27:12 And that’s one of the most productive agricultural states in the country, and-
Alan: 27:16 The more you lose, it sounds like the more you lose, the more you’re on a speeding train going even faster to lose more.
Jo: 27:23 Yeah, I think that’s true because you have fewer plants and less biological activity to hold the rest of the soil. The amazing thing about soil loss is that we have this long history, thousands of years, of using plowing and other bad agricultural techniques that destroy the soil and cause it to wash away. There are civilizations throughout history that have collapsed because of this, from Easter Island to, there’s now evidence that perhaps the Roman Empire was partly destroyed by the loss of soil. And you can imagine why if soil isn’t there, then crop can’t be grown and the civilization is dramatically weakened. But despite that, we have this long history and we should know this, and wars have been fought over soil and we should have an appreciation, we still continue with the farming methods that destroy soil structure. We know very well what methods would stop that process of erosion-
Alan: 28:27 What would be an example of a method of farming that doesn’t destroy soil?
Jo: 28:31 So there are three big ones, and one is no-till farming, where instead of plowing and putting the seeds in furrows, you actually drill the seeds into last year’s stubble. The beauty of that is that the plants from last year still have decaying roots and a lot of organic matter, or plant material, that is decomposing, and that material stays in place, gives the soil its structure and instead of turning it over and breaking up the clods and exposing all of the under soil to the atmosphere, we’re keeping it in place. And so, no-till agriculture was first introduced in the 70s, and 1970s, and it’s used in other countries. In fact, far more extensively than in the United States. I think Brazil has no-till agriculture on between two-thirds and three-quarters of their land, and the United States is still under 30% of our land in no-till. So, that would be the first thing would be to move to no-till agriculture.
The second is to use cover crops. Those are crops that we plant after harvesting the main crop but that stay in place over the winter. If you fly over the Midwest, you can see for about almost eight months a year, just bare soil unless there’s snow cover, like today.
Alan: 29:58 So, why, that seems like an easy thing to do. Is it costly to plant? What do you plant? What kind of a plant do you put there for the winter?
Jo: 30:06 There are a lot of different ones. You can use grains. You can use what’s called green manures, which are plants that you just plow under in the spring and they actually make the soil healthier and suppress disease. There are also, for example, there’s a kind of wheat that you can plant in the fall and then harvest in the spring. But a lot of depends on the climate and the type of agriculture that a farmer is part of. But it can be expense, that it’s more expensive to plant the crop if it’s not going to be harvested. A lot of cover crops are there just to enrich the soil and to protect the soil, so that can be a cost-
Alan: 30:49 And what’s the third … Do you have a third way, too?
Jo: 30:52 Yeah, and then the third one is inter cropping. That one is fascinating to me because of how little you have to do to get enormous impact. There are these studies that showed with this strip cropping, they take about 10% out of their corn out of production and replace it with these deep rooted prairie plants, which are the plants that first generated the great soils of the Midwest. And they, instead of putting all their energy into a corn ear, they put their energy into their roots because they’re perennials. They want to live until next year, so they have to store up energy in their roots. And the result is that they build the soil. They’re just wonderfully enriching to soil. In this one study they found that just 10% of the corn replaced by these prairie plants in little strips throughout the cornfield would reduce erosion by 95%.
Alan: 31:52 Wow. So you’ve got three ways to help the problem, and the whole world has to get interested in this. This sounds like a huge communication problem.
Jo: 32:04 I agree. I think we just need to get people on board. I think it’s really hard for farmers to do this on their own because these techniques will always take capital to transfer to, right? Any kind of change is going to cost some sort of money. In the case of no-till agriculture, having to buy a drill to drill the seeds. That’s a big capital investment. With the case of the strip cropping, eventually, it will increase the fertility of the soil so much that fertilizer costs will go down, but that’s a few years out and farmers have such small margins and they’re usually working just at the edge because agriculture is not very lucrative for farmers. It makes a lot more money for the retailers who sell food. So, it’s really hard for the individual farmer to make those changes. So, my own belief is we need to get consumers on board to say, “This is the kind of food we want. We want food that has been produced with soil safe methods.”
Alan: 33:15 When you were a science advisor to President Obama, were you working on this very problem?
Jo: 33:23 I was, and one of my regrets is I was never able to get a memo to the President about this issue. But I did work on it with the food retail community, with farm groups, with soil and conservation groups and other parts of government. It’s a tough, very naughty problem. I think the Farm Bill is one of the most politically fraught bill’s that’s passed in Congress. So, I’m not convinced that this is something we can deal with through a legislative action or through policy. I think-
Alan: 34:04 So, how do we do it?
Jo: 34:06 Again, through consumers. I think we need, just like we did with recycling, like we did with changing smoking habits, when people become aware of a problem, they change their behaviors. And we brought in Fair Trade coffee for example and people are willing to pay a small premium to know that their coffee was produced under Fair Trade conditions. I think that the same thing could be effected if people knew about how important our soil is and how much at risk it is.
Alan: 34:41 That’s … It’s so interesting. I wasn’t aware until I started to look into your work how serious the problem is with regard to soil and how it affects us in so many ways. And underlying that is the incredible importance of microbes and microbial organisms that affect us in every conceivable way. And I’m interested in this stuff. So I’m wondering about people whose daily lives keep them busy with other thoughts, how are you going to get to them? How are you going to explain to them that the soil, thousands of miles away, is affecting their lives in ways they’ve never imagined?
Jo: 35:34 Well, I think we need a multi-headed approach, and I’ve looked back at a couple of the big social change movements. It seems like the message has come from many different sources. So, I think podcasts like this are a tremendous tool for telling people about the importance of problems like this. I go out and talk to public groups. I’m writing a book for laypeople about soil that I hope will enlighten people about how precious and important the soil is and how much at risk it is. I’m also working with a film producer who is working toward a film on soil, and it would be a fictional story but we think of it sort of as the equivalent of the Day After Tomorrow, if you’ve seen that film with-
Alan: 36:26 I didn’t see it, but I read about it.
Jo: 36:28 It’s worth seeing. It’s got some actually good science in it even though it’s slightly science fiction-y. It was made in 2004, and it really rang an alarm bell about climate change. Even though it was science fiction and what happened in it couldn’t really happen, it was very startling for many people that these are the kinds of consequences that could result from climate change, and I think we need the same kind of thing that would be big box office hit that many people would see that would tell them the story of soil. One of the, I think soil is very romantic. One of the things about the Midwest that I especially love is that we have this unique soil called the Mollisol and it’s the richest, most fertile, most productive soil in the world. And only a few parts of the world has been gifted with this. The Midwest of the United States has the Mollisol. The Ukraine has the Mollisol. Then there are parts of China and Argentina that have it, and that’s it. It’s not a commodity that everyone has, and we should be protecting it. We know that wars have been fought over the Mollisol. There’s evidence-
Alan: 37:49 Oh, that’s amazing. Explain again what the Mollisol is.
Jo: 37:55 It’s a type of soil that ends up, it comes from these large prairies or steps, in Russia it’s called steps, and it comes from many, many, many centuries of deep rooted prairie plants, which are extremely productive plants and they put a lot of their energy into their roots. And over millennia, they build this rich deep dark soil, and the blackness of the Mollisol is just, it’s legendary. In fact, there’s a book called Black Earth about the Mollisol’s of the Ukraine and Hitler’s invasion of the Ukraine that was driven by his interest in their productivity and their ability to produce food.
Alan: 38:45 So, you talked about implanting bacteria from an obese person into a mouse and making the mouse obese, or conversely, making it lean from bacteria from a lean person. Can you do something like that with Mollisol? Can you get Mollisol to grow in areas where it is presently not? Or is that just a pipe dream?
Jo: 39:11 It’s a wonderful pipe dream. It’s a long process because it involves plants being decomposed, bacteria growing, fungi growing, it’s a complex ecosystem. We don’t know enough yet to know how to produce a Mollisol faster, but that’s in fact the kind of research that we need to pursue.
Alan: 39:34 So, what do you think are the pads now for helping people understand the importance of soil that are presently in the works? I heard you tell that wonderful story about Mark Twain in 1907 realizing the importance of the benefit of bacteria when for so long we’ve only thought of, and continued even after Mark Twain wrote about it, we’ve only thought of bacteria as being harmful and causing disease. What do you suppose made Mark Twain glom onto that idea when he was a lone voice in the desert?
Jo: 40:15 Well, it was a very specific thing and it’s even in the novel that he wrote called My 3000 Years with the Microbes, which is an unpublished novel that he wrote from the perspective of the microbes. He introduces it with the lectures that he heard from Professor Conn, C-O-N-N, who was the first bacteriologist in Connecticut and spoke about soils and microbes in their beneficial forms, and the microbes inside of people. Mark Twain heard his lectures and apparently, that’s all it took was a series of lectures that got him so excited about these rich communities of microbes that he wanted to write about them from their own perspective.
Alan: 41:06 That’s so great … Going to have to take a throat clearing break. Wait a minute.
Jo: 41:18 Okay.
Alan: 41:19 It’s so great that his creative imagination was spurred by one lecture, and it’s not so great that it wasn’t published, it didn’t get people thinking about the beneficial aspects of bacteria early enough. I mean, we went, what’d we go? Almost a century before people got really hip to the idea that we need these little guys, we are these little guys.
Jo: 41:51 Yeah, that’s right. I think microbiologists would have said, “Yeah, we always knew that to some degree.” But the depth and breadth of the power of microbes has really come to light in the last 20 years and I think it’s come to the public’s attention in the last few years. I think the press has done a very good job of illustrating the power of the microbes. We’ve seen a lot of newspaper articles about microbes and health, microbes even in soil, there are a few articles about that. And I think we just need more reaching out to the public about the power of the microbes.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: What I’m going to ask you is from left field, but I want to know what your professional knowledge is about this. I’ve read that the wonderful smell after a rain that’s so, it’s such a refreshing smell to me and I think to most of us, that that’s really bacteria rising in the air. Not only parts of bacteria but the excremental diversions of the bacteria. What do you know about that?
Jo: 54:00 Well, that’s absolutely true. A group of bacteria called the streptomyces produce a compound that has that very characteristic smell. In fact, when you grow the bacterium in the lab, people will turn their heads and say, “I smell spring”, because it’s so evocative and it turns out to be largely due to this one chemical, which can be volatilized and after a rain, it goes off into the air and that’s what we smell. So yeah, if there’s something good in the world, it’s usually because of bacteria. That’s the basic line that I use that I think is a really good thing to live by. If there’s something we love, it probably is produced by bacteria.

Alan: 42:32 Well, I’m sure glad for this conversation today. I found it fascinating, and I want to hear more from you. You speak with real clarity about this and you’re able to come up with examples and stories, which help the rest of us. It sticks in our mind. You say you’re working on a book about this?
Jo: 42:51 I am. It’s called A World Without Soil.
Alan: 42:54 Oh, it sounds scary. We have to go but before we go, we always ask our guests seven quick questions that are generally related to communicating. Are you game for it?
Jo: 43:08 Oh sure.
Alan: 43:10 They’re not hard. They’re not embarrassing. The first one is what do you wish you really understood?
Jo: 43:21 I wish I understood microbial communities fully, and I think we’ll, I hope we’ll have a better understanding of them in my lifetime, but we don’t truly understand the nature of those really, really complex communities of thousands of members and what makes them tick, what makes them hard to change, resilient and robust. And then what makes them break down when they fall apart.
Alan: 43:52 Number two, how do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Jo: 44:00 Well, in the old days when I was in my 20s and 30s, I said, “No, that’s not right.”
Alan: 44:09 I think we all have gone through that phase.
Jo: 44:12 I think so and-
Alan: 44:12 What do you do now? How do you handle it now?
Jo: 44:14 Well, and I always thought that was the right way to do it because as a scientist, we’re supposed to be protectors of the facts. We’re supposed to be promoting the facts. So I always thought it was almost like a moral responsibility to let people know when they’re wrong. But, as I’m sure, everybody can relate, that doesn’t go over so well. And so, I have a series of phrases that I use. Well my understanding is … Or … Another way to think about is, and then I give them a lot of evidence for that way of understanding so that they become convinced that that way of understanding is one that they should certainly consider. Usually using questions I think is the best way to reach people who have very entrenched wrong ideas.
Alan: 45:03 That’s very helpful. Very good thoughts, I think. Number three, what’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Jo: 45:16 Yeah, well, there’s one that always stands out to me. I was called by one of the advisors to the President about taking a position with President Obama as his science advisor, and when they kind of got to the next phase and started investigating me, they said, “Okay so, is there anything embarrassing you’ve ever done that could embarrass you or the President?” And that’s a pretty wide open question, and I didn’t know how to answer it.
Alan: 45:51 Like 99% of all people would disqualify themselves-
Jo: 45:51 Exactly.
Alan: 45:51 If it’s embarrassment.
Jo: 45:57 Exactly, and that’s what I was thinking was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose this job because …” And I could think of about 100 examples of things that I’ve done to embarrass myself.
Alan: 46:07 That’s great. Did you try any of them out of them? Or did you just finally turn off the faucet of embarrassment?
Jo: 46:13 I did actually tell one of them because I had no idea what they considered to be embarrassing. Now, I assumed like if I had embezzled funds or something, okay that probably wouldn’t look so good. If I hadn’t paid my taxes. I get it. But there were more complex and subtle ones, and so I totally embarrassed myself by giving him one example and he said, “Too much information. Let’s move on.”
Alan: 46:42 That’s great. Okay, next question. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Jo: 46:50 I usually don’t.
Alan: 46:52 Oh?
Jo: 46:53 I let them go and go and go. And I find that most compulsive talkers eventually wear themselves out.
Alan: 47:00 Yeah, but aren’t you lying on the floor by then? Well, I’ll try that next. That’s a good suggestion. Now here’s one. How do you start up a real conversation with someone at a dinner party sitting next to you who you don’t know?
Jo: 47:19 Oh I don’t know, how do you do it?
Alan: 47:21 Well, you must have faced the problem-
Jo: 47:22 What’s your answer?
Alan: 47:24 I have my own peculiar thing, but have you not developed a way of doing yet?
Jo: 47:31 I usually ask something with a smile that’s sort of … I try to be beguiling about it but ask something that’s slightly rude, like-
Alan: 47:45 Like are you actually as old as you look?
Jo: 47:48 Yeah, not quite that bad but what are you doing here? Or what’s your connection?
Alan: 47:54 Oh, that’s good. Yeah, that’s good.
Jo: 47:55 You know, just things that sound a little bit aggressive but if you say it with a smile then it’s seen as I think okay. But-
Alan: 48:01 I’m a little more intrusive-
Jo: 48:02 What’s your trick?
Alan: 48:03 I’m slightly more intrusive. I say, “What are you passionate about?”
Jo: 48:08 Oh, that’s good.
Alan: 48:09 Not necessarily what you do for a living. What are you passionate about?
Jo: 48:13 That’s great.
Alan: 48:14 And then they kind of open up sometimes. So, okay, next one. What gives you confidence?
Jo: 48:24 Facts.
Alan: 48:25 Facts? I’ve never heard that answer before. That’s interesting. Why does a fact give you confidence?
Jo: 48:32 Because I feel like I know what I’m doing when I have a lot of information and I feel shaky and unconfident when I’m devoid of information, facts, arguments and ways to defend my position.
Alan: 48:48 Great. Last question. What book has changed your life?
Jo: 49:02 Well, two, I’m not sure why. But A Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. When I read it when I was 16, I immediately started re-reading it, and I can’t say exactly how it changed my life but it made me certainly convinced that I wanted writing to be part of something, anything that I did. And then actually a book I just happen to have here called Black Earth, which is by Timothy Snyder, who is a historian at Yale and wrote a reinterpretation of Hitler and Mein Kampf. And interpreted it entirely in terms of Hitler’s commitment to getting good soil, and that was the invasion of the Ukraine and he ties in many, many other arguments. It revolutionized my thinking about soil. As much as I’ve loved soil for 40 years, it really changed my thinking about the history of soil and the impact that it’s had.
Alan: 50:12 What a good example of a really interesting conversation where things get turned around, and you see the world from an angle that you never expected to see it from. I’m so grateful for a really happy time with you just now. Thanks so much, Jo.
Jo: 50:30 Well, thank you, Alan. It’s always so good to see you.
Alan: 50:33 Great, thanks. I hope I get to see you soon. Bye-bye.
Jo: 50:35 Okay, great. Bye-bye.
Alan: 50:38 That was just terrific. Graham, do you have any tips? Yeah.
Jo: 50:46 Yes, I can hear you.
Alan: 51:02 That’s a good question. I was on the verge of wondering that too, but I’m glad you put it into words. Let me ask you, Jo, and do you mind staying for a minute?
Jo: 51:11 No.
Alan: 51:12 So, for so many centuries crops have been grown in soil that was plowed. Why did that seem to be such a good thing to do? It seems that advanced our ability to grow things. What’s good about turning over the soil like that?
Jo: 51:36 That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I know the answer but part of it is that it is a very effective way of breaking up the soil that has been perhaps packed for many, many years. So, like the first time a field is planted to crops, it’s much easier to get the plants to grow and introduce a new plant by turning over the soil. That breaks up the surface so that the plants can put their roots down and their shoots up. It also reduces the weed pressure because it often, usually it’s one of the big methods for controlling weeds, and that’s actually one of the problems we have going to a no-till agriculture system is that requires more herbicide use to kill the weeds. So, plowing has been used for several purposes.
It also is just a really easy way to get seeds into the ground. You open the furrow and you close the furrow with the plow, and the seeds are perfectly planted. And it’s also traditional. I personally, I hate to admit this, but I love the look and the smell of a freshly plowed field. And if farmers have grown up with that and have seen that as the only way to do planting for their whole lives, they continue to do it and they probably, I would bet, enjoy it as much as I do. That sense of spring and opening the soil and getting the crop planted is such a beautiful, beautiful thing that I think it’s very seductive. And then of course, we keep doing it because of economic pressures.
Alan: 53:18 You brought up something just now that is really, what I’m going to ask you is from left field, but I want to know what your professional knowledge is about this. I’ve read that the wonderful smell after a rain that’s so, it’s such a refreshing smell to me and I think to most of us, that that’s really bacteria rising in the air. Not only parts of bacteria but the excremental diversions of the bacteria. What do you know about that?
Jo: 54:00 Well, that’s absolutely true. A group of bacteria called the streptomyces produce a compound that has that very characteristic smell. In fact, when you grow the bacterium in the lab, people will turn their heads and say, “I smell spring”, because it’s so evocative and it turns out to be largely due to this one chemical, which can be volatilized and after a rain, it goes off into the air and that’s what we smell. So yeah, if there’s something good in the world, it’s usually because of bacteria. That’s the basic line that I use that I think is a really good thing to live by. If there’s something we love, it probably is produced by bacteria.
Alan: 54:43 That’s great. So, Graham, any other thoughts? Great. Jo, just great. Thank you. So good at this. Thanks so much.
Jo: 54:57 Thank you, and I’m coming to New York one of these days and maybe I could see you?
Alan: 55:02 That would be great. Let me know when you’re coming. I hope we can work that out. That would be just terrific.
Jo: 55:06 Okay, I’d love that. That’d be great.
Alan: 55:08 Great Jo. So long.
Jo: 55:09 Okay, thanks-
Alan: 55:09 Bye-bye.
Jo: 55:10 Bye-bye.
END CREDITS
Dr. Jo Handelsman is the Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also widely recognized for her contributions to science education and diversity in science. In 2011 she was the recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama, and in 2012, Nature named her one of “ten people who mattered this year” for her research on gender bias in science.
She previously served as a science advisor to President Barack Obama as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where she served for three years until January 2017. She is responsible for groundbreaking studies in microbial communication and work in the field of metagenomics.
You can find out more about Dr. Handelsman and her research by visiting the Handelsman Lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery – the web site is: handelsmanlab.discovery.wisc.edu
TRAILER