Why crop rotation works
“By sequencing RNA, we can look at the big picture of active microbes in the soil,” said PhD student Tom Turner from the John Innes Centre. “This also allows us to work out what they are doing there, including how they might be helping the plants out.”
“Our work helps explain the experience of farmers in the field,” said Professor Poole. “The best seed needs to be combined with the best agronomic practices to get the full potential benefits. While continued planting of one species in monoculture pulls the soil in one direction, rotating to a different one benefits soil health.”
Seeds can be inoculated with bacteria before planting out, just like humans taking a dose of friendly bacteria. But this does not achieve the diversity or quantity of microbes found in this study.
The scientists also grew an oat variety unable to produce normal levels of avenacin, a compound that protects roots from fungal pathogens. They expected the soil to contain higher levels of fungi as a result, but instead found it contained a greater diversity of other eukaryotes such as protozoa.
The findings of the study could be used to develop plant varieties that encourage beneficial microbes in the soil. John Innes Centre scientists are already investigating the possibility of engineering cereal crops able to associate with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria normally associated with peas.
“Small changes in plant genotype can have complex and unexpected effects on soil microbes surrounding the roots,” said Professor Poole. “Scientists, breeders and farmers can make the most of these effects not only with what they grow but how they grow it.”
Scientists at The Genome Analysis Centre are applying approaches similar to those used in this research to analyse large-scale metagenomics data sets with particular relevance to the role of microbial communities in human health, agriculture and biotechnology.
The research was made possible with funding from the Earth and Life Systems Alliance at the University of East Anglia and from the core strategic grant to the John Innes Centre from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
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