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Can Soil Inoculation Accelerate Carbon Sequestration in Forests?

When foresters first tried to plant non-native Pinus radiata in the southern hemisphere, the trees would not grow until someone thought to bring a handful of soil from the native environment. “They didn’t know it then, but they were reintroducing the spores of fungi that these trees need in order to establish,” Colin Averill, ecologist at The Crowther Lab, explains. “When we plant trees, we rarely ‘plant’ the soil microbiome. But if we do, we can really accelerate the process of restoration.”

That process of restoration has become one of humanity’s most urgent missions. In order to slow global warming, we know that we need to decarbonize our economy and start removing carbon from the atmosphere – and we’ve largely been looking at doing so through dreams of negative emissions technologies and schemes of tree-planting.

But only very recently has more attention been turned toward another major potential tool for carbon capture: soil. An astonishing 80 percent of the carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems is stored underground. According to the 4 per 1000 Initiative, a modest and achievable increase in soil carbon of 0.4 percent could be enough to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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Bacteria in branches naturally fertilize trees

The bacteria in and on our bodies have been shown to be vital for human health, influencing nutrition, obesity and protection from diseases.

But science has only recently delved into the importance of the microbiome of plants. Since plants can’t move, they are especially reliant on partnerships with microbes to help them get nutrients.

Now, University of Washington plant microbiologist Sharon Doty, along with her team of undergraduate and graduate students and staff, has demonstrated that poplar trees growing in rocky, inhospitable terrain harbor bacteria within them that could provide valuable nutrients to help the plant grow. Their findings, which could have implications for agriculture crop and bioenergy crop productivity, were published May 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers found that microbial communities are highly diverse, varying dramatically even in cuttings next to each other.

“This variability made it especially difficult to quantify the activity, but is the key to the biology since it is probably only specific groupings of microorganisms that are working together to provide this nutrient to the host,” said Doty, a professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

Nitrogen fixation is a natural process that is essential to sustain all forms of life. In naturally occurring low-nutrient environments such as rocky, barren terrain, plants associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to acquire this essential nutrient.

It’s well documented that nitrogen fixation happens in bacteria-rich nodules on the roots of legumes such as soybeans, clovers, alfalfa and lupines. Bacteria help the roots fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into a form which can be used by the plant.

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