A research on the link between soil fertility and the metabolism of microbes that live in it

Biocrust in Utah (Photo courtesy Tami Swenson)
Biocrust in Utah (Photo courtesy Tami Swenson)

An article published in the journal “Nature Communications” describes a research that seeks to understand how communities of very diverse microorganisms that include fungi, bacteria and archaea can adapt to biocrusts, which means in the biological crusts of soil in very dry and arid environments. A team of scientists led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory tried to understand it using the tools of exometabolomics, a big word that indicates the set of all the products of the metabolism of a biological organism.

Approximately 40% of the mainland is made up of arid soils that are too dry to sustain flourishing vegetation. However, these are not desolate lands because there are entire communities of microorganisms living in the biocrusts, the biological crusts of that soil, where the crusts represent the upper millimeter of soil. These biocrusts can exist for a long time in a dormant, desiccated state, to activate when it rains.

In this research, the scientists assessed the possibility that microbes could reproduce in a reduced environment that reproduces a more complex soil. Various biocrust samples were taken at various times from the same place, representing various stages of maturation thanks to the rain. Various analyzes were performed and samples were taken for DNA sequencing.

When the microbes are activated thanks to the humid environment, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and process the organic materials in the soil, greatly influencing its fertility. The study of these biocrusts has exactly the purpose of evaluating these influences in the carbon cycle and other environmental factors.

Arid and dry soils are particularly sensitive to the presence of organic materials and moisture. The predicions indicate that aridity will increase and this will have an impact on their productivity with a depletion of biocrusts. Understanding these phenomena and the role of the various microbes and metabolites, meaning the various products of the various organisms’ metabolism, in their ecosystem will help to understand first of all their evolution.

This understanding would give the possibility to predict the degradation of a soil and its increasing aridity with the final goal of preventing it and stopping it intervening on it to favor the action of microbes and their diversity. With the increasing risk of losing fertile areas, this type of research could really make a difference.

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