Why nature restoration takes time: fungi grow 'relationships'

February 8, 2017
How strong are the 'relationships' in soil communities? From left to right the interaction strength between groups in seminatural grasslands are visualized on recently, mid-term and long-term abandoned agricultural fields. Credit: Elly Morriën et al. / Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)

'Relationships' in the soil become stronger during the process of nature restoration. Although all major groups of soil life are already present in former agricultural soils, they are not really 'connected' at first. These connections need time to (literally) grow, and fungi are the star performers here. A European research team led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) has shown the complete network of soil life for the first time. This Wednesday, the results of the extensive study are published in Nature Communications.

Earthworms, , nematodes, mites, springtails, bacteria: it's very busy underground! All soil life together forms one giant society. Under natural circumstances, that is. A large European research team discovered that when you try to restore nature on grasslands formerly used as agricultural fields, there is something missing. Lead author Elly Morriën from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology explains: "All the overarching, known groups of soil organisms are present from the start, but the links between them are missing. Because they don't 'socialise', the community isn't ready to support a diverse plant community yet."

When nature restoration progresses, you'll see new species appearing. But those major groups of soil life remain the same and their links grow stronger. "Just like the development of human communities", says Morriën. "People start to take care of each other. In the soil, you can see that organisms use each other's by-products as food." In this way, nature can store and use nutrients such as carbon far more efficiently.

Fungi as drivers

"Fungi turn out to play a very important role in nature restoration, appearing to drive the development of new networks in the soil." In , the thready fungal hyphae are severely reduced by ploughing for example, and therefore the undamaged soil bacteria have an advantage and rule here. The researchers studied a series of former that had changed use 6 to 30 years previously. With time, there is a strong increase in the role of fungi.

Earlier, researchers did look at fungal biomass, but that won't show you the whole story. "After six years, about 10% is fungal biomass and 90% is from bacteria. Still, we discovered that already at that stage, about half the carbon - being the food - goes to the fungi. After 30 years, that share has risen to three quarters of the carbon stored. Fungi really are the drivers in natural soils."

From steppe to savannah

The international team compared grassland soils from all over Europe. In the Netherlands, research fields on the Veluwe were included. "Worldwide, you find many types of grassland ecosystems. Think of steppes, tundras, prairies and savannahs."

A unique opportunity, Morriën calls it. Because of the European consortium EcoFINDERS, data for many species of from many different locations could be studied. By labelling the carbon atoms, the research team was able to follow the food flow throughout the whole soil ecosystem. In this way, they could link the organisms to their corresponding functions in the community. Morriën: "This linking has never been done at such a large scale before. Now we can finally get an advanced view of a complete and intricate community." And who knows: "We might be able to help the fungi restore the missing links, which will speed up nature restoration considerably."

Explore further: Soil fungi help tree seedlings survive, influence forest diversity

More information: Elly Morriën et al, Soil networks become more connected and take up more carbon as nature restoration progresses, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS14349

Related Stories

Predicting plant-soil feedbacks from plant traits

August 26, 2016

In nature, plants cannot grow without soil biota like fungi and bacteria. Successful plants are able to harness positive, growth-promoting soil organisms, while avoiding the negative effects of others. Which plant traits ...

How fungi can improve the genetic makeup of bacteria

December 14, 2016

Soil bacteria use the extensively branched, thread-like structures of fungi to move around and access new food sources. In a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, UFZ researchers have been able to demonstrate ...

Microbes rule in 'knee-high tropical rainforests'

January 12, 2017

Rainforests on infertile wet soils support more than half of all plant species. Shrublands on infertile dry soils in southwestern Australia, jokingly called "knee-high tropical rainforests", support another 20 percent of ...

Recommended for you

Hot spot at Hawaii? Not so fast

August 18, 2017

Through analysis of volcanic tracks, Rice University geophysicists have concluded that hot spots like those that formed the Hawaiian Islands aren't moving as fast as recently thought.

Supervolcanoes: A key to America's electric future?

August 16, 2017

Most of the lithium used to make the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electronics comes from Australia and Chile. But Stanford scientists say there are large deposits in sources right here in America: supervolcanoes.

Greenland ice flow likely to speed up

August 16, 2017

Flow of the Greenland Ice Sheet is likely to speed up in the future, despite a recent slowdown, because its outlet glaciers slide over wet sediment, not hard rock, new research based on seismic surveys has confirmed. This ...

Climate change will cut crop yields: study

August 15, 2017

Climate change will have a negative effect on key crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, according to a major scientific report out Tuesday that reviewed 70 prior studies on global warming and agriculture.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.