What a soil experiment in Holland tells us

Small in size but with a large population, Holland is a nation with intensively farmed cropland, which led to a 6-year experiment with the results published just last month in the journal Nature Plants.

In this experiment, Martijn Bezemer, a biologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology Netherlands, began to inoculate degraded soils with dirt from healthy ecosystems. The idea was similar to what doctors do when treating intestinal problems by transplanting gut microbes from a healthy individual into a sick patient.

The results from the experiment revealed that small soil inoculations from grassland/heathland could help determine which plants would thrive in the future. What the experiment also confirmed is that the soil is not just a lifeless pile of earth. It is full of symbiotic fungi in plant roots, which help plants extract vital nutrients. Other microbes break down decaying plants and animals and replenish the materials used by the plants.

One person’s soil may not be another

Other research has recently revealed, though, that microbial populations are actually hyper-local with soil varying wildly from location to location and at different elevations at the same mountain, for example. This is a development in our understanding no one could have anticipated.

In fact, Noah Fierer, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder has been quoted as saying, “Yet 80 percent of the soil microbes in Central Park are still undescribed. There’s a lot of diversity to reckon with.”

What this means is that two different ecosystems, even if they are close to one another, could have vastly different microbes in their soil. Plants could survive a drought because of the unique mix of symbiotic microbes in the dirt around it. Plant that same plant in the wrong soil and it just might die.

Other findings

In Bezemer’s experiment, he found that the transplanted soil also prevented weeds and other non-desired plants from overtaking the new system before native species could take hold. Another result was that it was discovered that just small amounts of healthy soil could get a system reoriented onto a new path. For the experiment to work, the old topsoil had to be removed, too, which researchers say is because it ensure that existing microbes do not compete with the ones in the transplanted soil.

Soil is life

While concerns remain that to revive an ecosystem might require an incredibly large amount of soil, recent experiments in microbiology are quite clear in their findings. Complex and fully alive (and still quite mysterious to scientists), soil is critically important for ecosystem health.