Plant-soil interactions: the cycle of life

Last spring, I gave a TED talk about plant-soil interactions and their importance in the global carbon cycle at a TEDx event organised by Amsterdam University College. You can watch the video below, but for those of you who rather read (actually, I am one of those people, as I never have the patience to watch a video from beginning to end!) you can also read the full text below.

Do you ever think about soils? Do you ever think about soils, other than, when your boots are muddy, or your vegetables dirty? Well, I’m going to talk about soils.

Soils! Without soils, we would not be here. Soils sustain all life on land. And that is because all energy flows through soils, via photosynthesis and respiration.

Have soils always been here?


Have you ever thought about how soils are formed? Where plants came from? And the tiny invisible microbes that live in the soil?

More than 4.5 billion years ago, there was no soil. There wasn’t even life. There were only oceans. But somewhere between 4.5 and 3.5 billion years ago, the first microorganisms appeared in the oceans. There wasn’t even free oxygen at that time! But then, photosynthesis evolved in bacteria, and cyanobacteria started producing oxygen around 2.7 billion years ago. About 1.5 billion years ago, the first fungi appeared, and much later, around 500 million years ago, the first land plants arose. Probably, photosynthesis in these plants was derived from photosynthetic bacteria inside plant cells (the endosymbiosis theory). Those first land plants – like this little liverwort – had no, or very rudimentary roots (remember, there was no soil that they could grow their root in, only rock!), and were likely helped on land by symbiotic fungi. 

And this is where soil started to form. 

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An extremely dry summer in Manchester

Right at the end of the extremely dry period we had this summer I decided to do a little experiment: I started taking a photo of the patch of grass in my street in Manchester, in the North West of England, every couple of days. I study the effects of drought on ecosystems (see my previous posts about the effects of drought belowground here and here) and I thought it would be nice to show how the grass in my street would bounce back after the rain had started.

Only… it didn’t. The rain did not come as intensely as I expected, and the grass did not bounce back as quickly as I expected. The first (top left) photo was taken on the 12thof July, the last (bottom right) on the 20thof August. And still you can see bare soil and brown patches! This patch of grass would look a lot lusher and greener during a normal Manchester summer.

Manchester grass

The grass in my street in Manchester this summer. 

But, more importantly, while aboveground plant growth seems mostly recovered, the composition of the community has changed (which you can’t see in these photos), and as I’ve shown in my research, this might continue to affect belowground communities and the processes they perform.

Of course, this little patch of grass in Manchester is not that important for the functioning of our ecosystems. But it is a nice illustration of the impacts of an extremely dry summer on grassland and how long it takes for these fast-growing plants to regain their biomass!

To observe or to extract? Different methods for studying soil organisms

Interest in characterising soil communities is booming, fuelled by the growing recognition that soil biota govern processes of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling – processes that underpin the delivery of soil-based ecosystem services such as climate mitigation and sustainable food production. Soils capture carbon, which can exacerbate climate change when released to the atmosphere, and they provide nitrogen and other nutrients for growing crops and feeding livestock – when these nutrients are lost from soils, they can pollute ground and surface water and cause a loss of biodiversity. Because soil microbes decompose organic matter, thereby releasing N for plant growth, and respiring C, they determine the balance between the release and retention of C and N in soils.

In my work, I have a particular interest in the role of soil fungi and bacteria in these processes. Moreover, I want to find out how land use change and climate change affect the relative abundance of fungi and bacteria, and the chain of soil fauna that feed on them (the fungal and the bacterial energy channel, respectively), and how these changes in turn affect processes of C and N cycling. For example, some of my recent work shows that fungal-dominated microbial communities of extensively managed grassland retain N better and have lower N leaching losses, about which you can read more in this old blog post. Also, I have shown that fungal-based soil food webs and the processes of C and N cycling that they carry out are less affected by drought, which is expected to increase with climate change, than bacterial-based soil food webs.

An example of a soil food web, with the fungal decomposition pathway (dashed arrows) and the bacterial decomposition pathway (solid arrows). Both fungi and bacteria are consumed by a chain of soil fauna, that consists of protozoa, nematodes, collembola, and mites.

An example of a soil food web, with the fungal decomposition pathway (dashed arrows) and the bacterial decomposition pathway (solid arrows). Both fungi and bacteria are consumed by a chain of soil fauna, that consists of protozoa, nematodes, collembola, and mites.

To do this type of work, obviously, you have to measure the composition of soil microbial communities, or even of entire soil food webs. This is not an easy task, as most of these organisms are not, or barely, visible for the naked eye. For decades, direct microscopy was the only possibility to quantify and characterise the composition of soil microbial and soil faunal communities. For microbial communities, this involves transferring a soil suspension onto a microscopic slide, staining the fungi and bacteria, and then counting their hyphae or cells using a microscope. I used this method during my PhD and spent weeks, if not months, looking through a microscope. Although still frequently used, in recent years, direct microscopy has been increasingly replaced by the measurement of phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs), a component of the cell membranes of fungi and bacteria. Because different microbes have different PLFAs in their cell membranes, the PLFA composition of a soil sample can be used as a ‘fingerprint’ of the soil microbial community. In other words, it doesn’t only tell you about the relative abundance of fungi and bacteria, but also about the composition of the bacterial community. Continue reading