Kentucky scientists study changes on microbes

The ecosystem is more than the plants and animals we can see; it also includes the microbes below ground which are a vital part of nutrient cycling and carbon storage.

Scientists have recently studied the effect of temperature and precipitation change on microbes and carbon storage.

“These pasture systems are pretty understudied in terms of how climate change will affect them, which is not good because these areas rely so heavily on agriculture,” Lindsey Slaughter of the University of Kentucky said. “While this work was part of a longer project studying plant communities, I was able to study soil microbial communities over one year because they are such an important part of these ecosystems.”

The study was conducted on a Kentucky pasture and contained four study conditions including the natural seasonal changes of rainfall and temperature; a second treatment was 3 degrees Celsisu warmer than the natural temperature. The third received 30 percent more precipitation during the growing season and the final group received both extra warming and rainfall treatments.

Slaughter’s experiment revealed that winter soils in warmed pots had less carbon for microbes but also contained 16 percent more microbes than non-warmed pots throughout the year.

“It was really unexpected because we thought that the experimental conditions would lead to more changes for the soil microbes,” Slaughter said. “We only sampled one year out of the larger five-year study. We can’t be sure if the microbes experienced changes initially and just adapted by the time we sampled them, or if their characteristics stayed the same over the whole period. It’s an issue of timing that deserves more research.”

Studies still need to be conducted on more severe, long term stresses to microbials.

“It’s hard to make generalizations about how areas will react to the effects of climate change. Different regions will experience different changes,” he said. “Our results show that for this yearlong period, seasonal changes had more of an effect than making the soils warmer and wetter. But the small changes we did see definitely point to the need for a long-term study here and in other locations.”

Organizations in this Story

American Society of Agronomy

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