Brazil, The Great Amazon Adventure Starts, Uncategorized

The Great Amazon Adventure Starts: Hook a Worm to Catch a Man

Great ideas are what drives science forward and finding those great ideas is like finding a seam of gold, it takes perseverance, skill but more than a little bit of luck. Less than a year ago I decided to send my post-doc, Luis Cunha, who had brought the team ‘Stress in a Hot Place’ a story of earthworm inhabiting multi-stressor environment of active volcanic soils, to the 10th International Symposium on Earthworm Ecology (ISEE10). We only had funds for one air ticket and Luis needed to go and tell the earthworm community about his amazing work characterising the earthworms that live on active volcanic calderas. What I didn’t expect is for him to come back with an idea that would eclipse his previous project. At the meeting Luis had meet with Prof George Brown, a legend in the earthworm community, and someone who has worked extensively on the biodiversity and ecology of earthworms in South America. Over a good bottle of wine George started tell Luis an incredible story about the Ancient Amazonian Indians their agriculture and the use of vermi-composting.
George’s story started with the Ancient Amazonian Civilizations which have been relieved to be extensive, highly complex societies which relied heavily on agriculture (if you are interested in finding out more a great interview with Science Editor Charles Mann can be found on the Science web site – click to link – which summaries a series of complex archeological investigations – click to link). Agriculture in the Amazon is something of an paradox since removal of the forest canopy cause the loss of soil structure and a rapid loss of nutrients, one of the reasons for today’s continuing deforestation – you clear it,  you farm it, it rapidly becomes infertile, so you need to clear more. George had been drawn into a network of archeologist to look at the ecology of unique soils called  ‘terra preta‘ or Amazonian Dark Earths (ADEs) found at the sites of these ancient civilizations (there’s a whole youtube channel on these soils if you are interested – click to link). What got Luis excited was when George described the earthworm species he had found after preliminary investigations associated in with these Dark Earths (yes getting excited about earthworms is what earthworm biologist do, strange but true).  The appearance of the species Pontoscolex corethrurus was especially intriguing as Luis had been studying this species in the Azores and had mapped its population distribution (see Luis’s paper) in the volcanic island and who’s polyploid genome Luis was currently stitching together. Now if this was a Hollywood production there would be a strike of inspirational lighten, if a cartoon there would be a light bulb clicking on but however you wish to visualise it this is when Luis and George realized that if this species of earthworm had been brought to the south of Brazil from the east Amazon they could use genetics to trace back the relation between the earthworm populations found on Dark Earths associated with Amazonian Archeological sites possibility mirroring the migration of man into the Amazon.

Now its February 2015, nearly nine months later, and in partnership with Prof George Brown (EMBRAPA, Brazil) and with the support of a network of archeologists and scientists from Brazil (special thanks to our colleagues in the Goeldi Museum and Universidade Estadual Maranhão – UMEA who supported our grant applications), we have support from the European Union, Newton foundation and NERC to ‘Hook a worm to catch a man’.

Now, what follows on this blog will be a mixture of science, travel and adventure. The intention is not to provide the detailed science that, we hope, will be published in science literature but instead I want to provide an insight into the excitement and thrill of science discovery as it happens with all the highs and lows, logistical nightmares and adrenaline of working in the deep Amazon.