Defending Earth’s terrestrial microbiome

New research shows that native soil microbiome restoration can accelerate plant biomass production by 64% on average, across ecosystems.

This study reveals that working with healthy microbial communities can improve conservation and restoration success, as well as help to convert managed landscapes into reservoirs – rather than deserts – of microbial biodiversity.

Soil organisms represent the most diverse community on the planet, and a key component of global biodiversity. Yet, this belowground diversity is often overlooked in conservation and restoration efforts. This study, published in the journal Nature Microbiology, shows that restoring native, diverse soil microbial communities can accelerate the natural regeneration rate of ecosystems by an average of 64%.

The greatest potential for enhancing microbial biodiversity; however, may exist in managed landscapes, which cover ~50% of the vegetative land surface. Identifying ways to promote biodiversity in these managed landscapes without limiting yields is a key global challenge. This study highlights how belowground biodiversity represents a previously underappreciated opportunity to promote biodiversity without compromising yields. By incorporating healthy, diverse, and native soil communities into agricultural and forestry practices, it is possible to improve biodiversity, which can have a variety of benefits for vegetation growth and productivity.

“Belowground communities represent an incredible opportunity for us to enhance biodiversity at the same time as promoting aboveground plant health in both natural and managed landscapes” said Prof. Thomas Crowther, the senior author of the paper. “But as we consider this opportunity of healthy microbiome inoculations, we must learn from the mistakes in the aboveground world and avoid the use of monoculture microbial inocula (seemingly beneficiary microorganisms to improve crop yield) that can be damaging to diversity and ecosystem health.”

This research into the protection and restoration of soil biodiversity is critical now more than ever, in light of the global biodiversity crisis. The study suggests that, based on existing patterns of microbial extinction and homogenization, the scale of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event may be orders of magnitude higher than previously anticipated. “Recent studies show global change is rapidly degrading global microbial biodiversity, clearly suggesting that the scale of the biodiversity crisis is much greater than previously appreciated.” said Dr. Colin Averill, the lead author of the study.

As microbial species decline, ecosystem stability and human food sources will suffer, in part because systems with low ecological and genetic diversity are more susceptible to extreme climate events. “Protecting and restoring the belowground microbiome is essential to protecting all of Earth’s biodiversity,” said Dr. Colin Averill.

As the dominant land uses worldwide, researchers specifically identify agricultural and forestry landscapes for their enormous potential to promote microbial biodiversity. Along with improving and stabilizing yields, increasing microbial biodiversity in managed landscapes is a significant – but underutilized – opportunity to build reservoirs of microbial life around the world.

Read the full paper in Nature Microbiology here.

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