IMAGE: Microscopy image of Tympanidaceae, a fungus found at a research sample site (Photo credit: Danny Newman and Mia Maltz/UCR).
University of California (UC) Riverside is leading an effort that could help ensure food security and improve the worst effects of climate change by studying rock-eating bacteria and fungi. These microbes break apart chemical bonds in deep underground layers of rocks, then die and release nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil. Aside from fertiliser, this is the main way soil obtains these nutrients, and agriculture is dependent on the process.
“Despite how critical they are for food production, our general knowledge of microbes in soils is so lacking,” said Emma Aronson, associate professor of microbiology and plant pathology.
A new $4.2 million National Science Foundation grant aims to close the gap in scientists’ understanding. It will enable scientists to install sensors in the ground at five different sites and monitor the microbes’ activity for the next five years. The sensors will measure, among other things, carbon dioxide concentration at these sites throughout the five years of the study.
One application of the research could include a tool to help trap carbon in the ground. Researchers may be able to identify some deep soil bacteria that are better at extracting nutrients from rocks than others. Those bacteria would allow plants to become larger and, if they have extra nutrients, take up more carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere, trapping heat. Bacteria that encourage plant growth also offer the potential for increased agricultural yields, and more food, which is critical given the potential for decreased crop production as the climate changes.
A chief benefit of the project is its interdisciplinary nature, allowing collaboration between microbiologists, ecologists, geoscientists, and soil and rock scientists.