Carmen Ugarte, University of Illinois
Ed Zaborski, University of Illinois
eOrganic

Nematode head appendage from judy_breck

Importance of Nematodes in Agricultural Systems

Nematodes contribute to a variety of functions within the soil system. In agricultural systems, nematodes can enhance nutrient mineralization and act as biological control agents.

Nematodes and Soil Fertility

Soil nematodes, especially bacterial- and fungal-feeding nematodes, can contribute to maintaining adequate levels of plant-available N in farming systems relying on organic sources of fertility (Ferris et al., 1998). The process of converting nutrients from organic to inorganic form is termed mineralization; mineralization is a critical soil process because plants take up nutrients from the soil primarily in inorganic forms. Nematodes contribute directly to nutrient mineralization through their feeding interactions. For example, bacterial-feeding nematodes consume N in the form of proteins and other N-containing compounds in bacterial tissues and release excess N in the form of ammonium, which is readily available for plant use. Indirectly, nematodes enhance decomposition and nutrient cycling by grazing and rejuvenating old, inactive bacterial and fungal colonies, and by spreading bacteria and fungi to newly available organic residues. In the absence of grazers, such as nematodes and protozoa, nutrients can remain immobilized and unavailable for plant uptake in bacterial and fungal biomass.

Bacterial-feeding nematodes are the most abundant nematode group in agricultural soils. Their abundance closely follows that of bacterial populations, which tend to increase when soil disturbances, such as tillage, increase the availability of readily-decomposable organic matter. Nitrogen mineralization in the soil occurs at a higher rate when bacterial-feeding nematodes are present than when they are absent. The contribution of bacterial-feeding nematodes to soil N supply depends, in part, on the quality and quantity of soil organic matter fueling the system. Net N mineralization from decomposing organic residues takes place when the carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio of organic residue is below 20 (that is, 20 parts C to 1 part N). When the C:N ratio is greater than 30, the rate of mineralization decreases because microbes compete for N to meet their nutritional requirements. In this situation, N is immobilized in the microbial biomass. Incorporation of manure, compost, and cover crops with intermediate C:N ratios (ranging from 10 to 18) may stimulate bacterial growth and the abundance of bacterial-feeding nematodes, and increase soil N availability to plants.

Fungal-feeding nematodes are relatively more abundant in less-disturbed (e.g. notill systems) and perennial systems, where conditions for fungal growth are promoted, than in disturbed systems. Like bacterial feeding nematodes, fungal-feeding nematodes contribute to the process of nutrient mineralization by releasing N and other plant nutrients from consumed fungal tissue. However, in agricultural systems, bacterial-feeding nematodes typically release more inorganic N than fungal-feeding nematodes.

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