Micro but mighty: could the soil microbiome improve climate predictions?

BioTechniques News
Jade Parker

Researchers are using soil microbe DNA to model how they function and use carbon, helping to better predict and address climate change.

A recent study led by a team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (CA, USA) has uncovered secrets lingering within Earth’s soil and what they can tell us about climate change. Using soil microbes’ DNA, researchers modeled microbe function and carbon use, providing information that can help create more accurate climate models.

Soil microbes are an important part of the environment, helping plants access nutrients in the soil as well as resist drought, pests and disease. These microbial marvels also affect soils’ carbon stores; microbes decide how much carbon should remain underground and how much should be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Microbes are an essential part of ecosystem soil carbon sequestration, which affects global carbon levels. Due to the vast number of microbes in soil that have never been characterized, previous climate models – developed to predict and address climate change – have neglected the important role of these microbes in this process. By incorporating microbial genetic information into their climate models, scientists can better understand how soil microbes affect the climate, specifically highlighting their carbon activities.

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“Our research demonstrates the advantage of assembling the genetic information of microorganisms directly from soil. Previously, we only had information about a small number of microbes studied in the lab,” remarked first author Gianna Marschmann. “Having genome information allows us to create better models capable of predicting how various plant types, crops, or even specific cultivars can collaborate with soil microbes to better capture carbon. Simultaneously, this collaboration can enhance soil health.”

The team focused on the microbes in the rhizosphere, the region surrounding plant roots, because even though this soil makes up 1–2% of soil on Earth, it contains 30–40% of Earth’s carbon stores. Using genomic data from the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center (CA, USA) combined with a theoretical framework, the team simulated microbes growing in the rhizosphere and discovered that distinct microbial growth strategies appear due to the interaction between root chemistry and certain microbial traits. This model can predict how different microbes use carbon and nutrients supplied by plant roots.

Although the team focused on the rhizosphere, this model is applicable to other soil systems and microbes around the world. “This newfound knowledge has important implications for agriculture and soil health. With the models we are building, it is increasingly possible to leverage new understanding of how carbon cycles through soil. This in turn opens up possibilities to recommend strategies for preserving valuable carbon in the soil to support biodiversity and plant growth at scales feasible to measure the impact,” concluded Marschmann.

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