Published: JIC News, July 18, 2013

Photo Credit: JIC News

Crop rotation has been used since Roman times to improve plant nutrition and to control the spread of disease. A new study to be published in Nature’s ‘The ISME Journal’ reveals the profound effect it has on enriching soil with bacteria, fungi and protozoa.

“Changing the crop species massively changes the content of microbes in the soil, which in turn helps the plant to acquire nutrients, regulate growth and protect itself against pests and diseases, boosting yield,” said Professor Philip Poole from the John Innes Centre.

Soil was collected from a field near Norwich and planted with wheat, oats and peas. After growing wheat, it remained largely unchanged and the microbes in it were mostly bacteria. However, growing oat and pea in the same sample caused a huge shift towards protozoa and nematode worms. Soil grown with peas was highly enriched for fungi.

“The soil around the roots was similar before and after growing wheat, but peas and oats re-set of the diversity of microbes,” said Professor Poole.

All organisms on our planet can be divided between prokaryotes (which include bacteria) and eukaryotes (which include humans, plants and animals as well as fungi). After only four weeks of growth, the soil surrounding wheat contained about 3% eukaryotes. This went up to 12-15% for oat and pea. The change of balance is likely to be even more marked in the field where crops are grown for months rather than weeks.

Analysis has previously relied on amplifying DNA samples. This limits scientists to analysing one taxonomic group at a time such as bacteria. It also means that everything present in that group is analysed rather than what is playing an active role. Every gram of soil contains over 50,000 species of bacteria so the task is enormous.

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