Sean Nee is right in drawing attention to the invisible world of microbial life in his Commentary “More than meets the eye” (Nature 429, 804–805; 2004). That netherworld of life is not the only one to suffer neglect on the part of biologists, however. The microscopic life in the soil depends in large measure on plants exporting to their roots the sugars produced by photosynthesis in their leaves. But biology — even plant biology — is obsessed with the visible plant.
Mother Nature conspires with biologists to keep plant roots in the dark. Yet all visible life on the surface depends, for most of the chemical elements it requires (the mineral nutrients), on plant roots which are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Anyone wanting to test the neglect of this matter need only try looking up ‘plant nutrition’ in university catalogues. That science, so prominent half a century ago, has all but lost an identity of its own. Pretending that this subject belongs in soil science is like considering photosynthesis as part of atmospheric science. The roots of life on Earth deserve better.
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Plant Molecular Biology (2006)