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Unearthing Soil Microbe Facts and Fallacies

When it comes to the invisible realm of soil organisms, it can be a challenge to separate fact from fiction. A horticultural scientist sheds some light on common myths about soil biology.


Pictured Above: LOW IMPACT. Research showing corn and soybean fields where glyphosate had been used long-term compared to fields that hadn’t been treated with glyphosate showed few high-level differences between microbial communities
Source: Newman et al., 2016

THOUGH SCIENTISTS have been studying soil for decades, the microscopic nature of fungi, bacteria and nematodes has veiled the important role they play in agriculture. But new tools are emerging all the time to uncover what’s going on in the soil.

High-throughput DNA sequencing and other technologies have opened the floodgates in terms of the amount of data available about the communities of microbes in the soil, says Adria Fernandez, a horticultural scientist at the University of Minnesota.

“This has created a lot of excitement but also a lot of hype,” she says, acknowledging that there’s still a lot about the soil microbiome that is not understood. She likens much of what is known about soil microbial communities to “building blocks” of scientific knowledge that will eventually support specific practices and urges farmers to be skeptical of grand claims about the soil microbiome. To this end, here are some facts and myths about microbes to help make sense of conflicting messages.

FACTS

Soil Type Matters. Fernandez says the soil microbial community composition is largely driven by soil properties like soil texture and soil pH, and where the soil is located.

“We would like to think we can adopt new practices and make a revolution in our soil communities,” she says, “but actually…

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Julia Gerlach

Julia Gerlach is managing editor of No-Till Farmer. She has a lengthy background in publishing and a longtime interest in gardening and mycology. She graduated with a B.A. in music and philosophy from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis.

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