Novel approaches for harnessing native soil microbial communities to restore biodiverse degraded ecosystems in drylands

A project undertaken at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, and supervised by Miriam Muñoz-Rojas

Two-thirds of the planet's ecosystems are currently degraded and face serious threats such as biodiversity loss and increased vulnerability to climate change. Consequently, there is an urgent global demand for ecosystem restoration with calls to rehabilitate over 150 million ha of land by 2020 and a further 200 million ha by 2030.

In Australia, extensive dryland areas have been heavily degraded resulting in biodiversity loss and reduced ecosystem productivity and functionality. These degraded conditions position the country as one of the climate change vulnerable "hot-spots" globally. Despite the widely-accepted importance of these water-limited landscapes and the large amounts of money invested in ecosystem restoration, success rates are generally low due to the extensively altered or degraded soil conditions.

This project aims to explore and develop new technologies to increase plant recruitment and soil function through effective targeted-delivery of native soil microorganisms in degraded arid soils. The project is expected to provide cost-effective, environmentally-based techniques for land managers, conservation agencies and government departments to help those overcome critical barriers to plant recruitment, and enhance restoration outcomes.

The main goal of this project is to investigate the targeted-delivery of available bio-resources that enhance the recruitment of keystone plant species and the provision of multiple ecosystem functions such as carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and soil stability, in degraded biodiverse landscapes.

Specifically the aims of this project are: 

  1. To identify soil microbial communities representative of a range of ecosystem types along a climate gradient in the Australian arid zone.
  2. To develop novel technologies for effective targeted-delivery of native bio-active microorganism in degraded soils that increase seedling recruitment under varying climate scenarios.
  3. To elucidate the roles and benefits of native soil microbial species for the re-establishment of plant-soil feedbacks and ecosystem functions in degraded soils.

This research will develop new knowledge and methods for the application of emerging technologies such as next-generation DNA sequencing and seed enhancement techniques (i.e. seed pelleting) that will improve future large-scale restoration efforts.

Figure 1. The mining-intensive biodiverse Pilbara region in north western Australia. Credit: M. Muñoz-Rojas

Figure 2. Cyanobacteria from soil biocrust native to the Pilbara region. Credit: A. Chilton

Figure 3. Soil pellets encapsulating cyanobacteria from the Pilbara. Credit: M. Muñoz-Rojas