The earth's climate is changing, with warmer temperatures and altered precipitation regimes that have uncertain outcomes for soil and plant health. Soils are alive, with microbial communities interacting with plants and soil minerals to produce emergent properties that we cannot predict well. The focus of this project is to study plant-soil-microbial interactions to develop a mechanistic understanding of the interacting factors that contribute to plant health.
Microbial diversity is one aspect of the soil microbiome that appears to be associated with healthy soils. In natural systems where plants are not fertilized, there is an important exchange between plants and microbes where microbes facilitate the availability of nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) frrom soils to plants. Soils with more diverse communities tend to promote nutrient cycling and be better buffers for ecosystem stress. Soils that have more organic matter also tend to be healthier, and within the last decade it has become clear that microbial turnover and transformation of plant organic matter is an important precursor for building soils. Despite the growing understanding that climate change influences microbial community diversity and function, how these changes ultimately impact soil health requires further investigation.
The target audience for this research includes any soil or landscape manager interested in incorporating practices that improve soil health by increasing or targeting microbial diversity. Our work will quantify the effect of different levels of microbial diversity on indexes of soil health, including organic matter content, microbial biomass, and microbial turnover or activity. We will also examing competing hypotheses of keystone or dominant species acting outside of hte emergent properties of microbial diversity. Ultimately we will be able to make a statement about how increasing fungal and bacterial diversity may contribute to different metrics of soil health and resilience to climate stress.