Soil micro-organisms can help farming reduce greenhouse gasses

Newly published research into soil microbes shows how, eventually, farmers might reduce greenhouse gas production through the way they manage their soils.

The work, by an EU-wide consortium including Teagasc and researchers from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), shows how effectively a newly-discovered group of soil microbes breaks down Nitrous Oxide, a major contributor to global warming and a gas blamed for depleting the ozone layer. It suggests that if their growth could be encouraged soils could make a greater contribution to addressing climate change.

The research, published in the respected journal Nature Climate Change, was led by the INRA agroecolgy centre in France. The consortium involved scientists from Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and from Scotland, the James Hutton Institute and SRUC.

“Compared with what we know about Carbon Dioxide and Methane we don’t understand enough how different soil microorganisms create Nitrous Oxide or break it down,” says SRUC Soil Ecologist, Professor Bryan Griffiths.

“This work gives us greater knowledge about the bugs which reduce harmful Nitrous Oxide to useful Nitrogen and Oxygen. We have also discovered that the effect of this denitrification does not depend on one simple soil factor like drainage or pH but relies on the abundance of these microbes. The next step will be to look at the factors that control their abundance and activity.”

There are literally billions of different microorganisms in soils. Instead of looking for particular individual species the researchers used DNA analysis to look for the genes linked to denitrification. Their results, from a survey of 47 different soils across Europe, represent many species of microorganism all of which share this ability to reduce Nitrous Oxide.

According to Bryan Griffiths:“Nitrous Oxide contributes some 6% to global warming and has a major affect on the ozone layer. Around 70% of the world’s Nitrous Oxide comes from various land-based ecosystems and 60% of that can be attributed to microbial processes in agriculture. If we can find ways of altering the balance so that there are larger populations of these Nitrous Oxide reducing microbes, it will help agriculture reduce what we call its environmental footprint.”

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