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Land of the Living Soil

Soil microbiologists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are trying to understand complex interactions between plant roots and soil microorganisms. How complex? Plant scientists have found that a single soil sample can contain more than 30,000 varieties of microorganisms (also known as microbes). There's not just some life down there – there's a lot!

Beneficial Microbes

As scientists delve deeper into this unknown world, they are finding that some communities of organisms are beneficial to plants and others are not. Beneficial microbes can fight pathogens or even trigger a plant's own defense mechanisms against disease. Scientists are also finding that different microbial communities form depending on the plant type present. Relatively little is known about how these mechanisms work, but it appears that plants are attuned to soil organisms and visa-versa.

Dr. Chantal Hamel, a soil microbiologist from AAFC in Swift Current, SK finds this concept exciting. Knowing more about these microbial communities and how specific plants interact with them raises possibilities for improving plant production and soil health.

"Ancient Greeks knew that the key to successful agriculture was in the soil," says Dr. Hamel." 2,500 years later, we have the tools, like advanced DNA and molecular technologies, powerful computers and lots of patience, needed to crack soil's black box."

Current Arbuscular Mycrorrhizal (AM) Fungi Research

Dr. Hamel is most interested in interactions between plants and arbuscular mycrorrhizal (AM) fungi. This family of fungus is known to colonize on root systems and increase the plant's ability to take up nutrients.

Description of this image follows.

AM fungi associated with an alfalfa root in soil – extending the root system's ability to capture nutrients.

Of late, Dr. Hamel's team has done extensive soil sampling to assess the influence of land use on the soils. Collections were made in pastures, on cropland and in roadsides, which interestingly enough, are the main repository of microbe diversity in much of the Prairie area. Dr. Hamel found that despite the soil disturbance created by agriculture, the AM communities have been maintained. That's good news for farmers because AM fungus is generally good for soil health.

Hamel has also explored the ability of AM fungus to suppress soil born disease. In a recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology, she found that overall, roots that were colonized by AM fungus were better able to suppress pathogens and were healthier as a result.

The ultimate dream of soil microbiologists is to understand how to encourage these nutrient-transforming, disease-fighting communities. Hamel's work is a piece in this very complex, unfinished voyage of discovery.

For more information, or to set up an interview:

Media Relations
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Ottawa, Ontario

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