What began as a simple data analysis project for me in the Yeoman lab turned into a publication, a conference presentation, a post-doc position, and a long-term, multi-project collaboration with the Menalled lab at Montana State University investigating soil microbial communities in agricultural settings and plant-soil feedbacks.
This study was part of a larger investigation on farming system (conventional or organic), and wheat-weed competition, as part of a master’s thesis by Stephen Johnson. The publication on plant competition and crop performance can be found here.
The larger project involved soil collected from the fields of four farms around Montana which had both conventionally-managed and a USDA-certified organically-managed plots growing wheat. Soil was brought back to Montana State University, where half of each field sample was sterilized to destroy living microorganisms. A greenhouse study was performed using either the sterile or the living soil, and the soil was conditioned by growing either Amaranthus retroflexus L. (redroot pigweed) or Avena fatua L. (wild oat) for 16 weeks. Following this plant growth phase, soil was collected and the bacterial community analyzed using Illumina MiSeq sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene. The larger study then went on to study the performance of wheat crops in that preconditioned soil.
The strongest driving factor in soil bacterial communities was whether that soil had been sterile (purple) or living (green) in the greenhouse experiment, as seen below. After that, farming system was the next strongest determinant of that community. Interestingly, organically-sourced soil that had been sterilized was more similar to any living soil than conventionally-sourced sterile soil. This indicates that organic soil was more favorable in recruiting a new soil community.
When comparing only the living soil samples, the samples reclustered by farming system; either organic or conventional.
Which weed species was growing was also an important factor, although much weaker. A number of soil bacteria were more abundant in the soil around of the roots of one or the other plant. Plants are known to associate with, and even recruit, different microbial communities, and this interaction can be plant-species-specific.
Ishaq, S.L., Johnson, S.P., Miller, Z.J., Lehnhoff, E.A., Olivo, S.K., Yeoman, C.J., Menalled, F.D. 2017. A living soil inoculum increases soil microbial diversity, crop and weed growth using soil from organic and conventional farms in northeastern Montana. Microbial Ecology 73(2): 417-434. Impact 3.630. Article
Poster: Ishaq*, S.L., Johnson, S.P., Miller, Z.J., Lehnhoff, E.A., Olivo, S.K., Yeoman, C.J., Menalled, F.D. Farming Systems Modify The Impact Of Inoculum On Soil Microbial Diversity. American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Boston, MA, June 2016.