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Despite big chill, underground world is fired up

In the latest 'Urban Cowboy', Owen Roberts takes a look at cold temperatures can impact the underground world
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Microbiome research at the Elora Research Station (photo courtesy of Kari Dunfield)
Microbiome research at the Elora Research Station. Photo courtesy of Kari Dunfield

How will this winter’s Arctic temperatures impact the world just below the Earth’s surface?

That’s a question that worries some people, when we’re slogging through a big, stubborn, nasty chill.

Although dormancy protects some of the microbes that live in the soil -- a feature that has secured the underground’s dynamic ecosystem for millions of years – incessant record lows make you wonder if an exceptionally cold winter could cause a blip.

Researchers keep an eye on such things. They study the underground world, even as it’s covered in snow, watching the activity of microscopic organisms called microbiomes.

“Our research, and that of others, has shown that the microbes are actually quite active during the winter,” says Prof. Kari Dunfield, who holds the University of Guelph’s Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology of Agro-ecosystems.

In the most successful ecosystems, microbiome communities get along, support each other and -- ideally -- make each other better. What’s called symbiosis is at play – that is, close, long-term interaction between organisms in an environment.

Soil is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in existence. That makes it ideal ground for enhancing microbiome activity and applications, such as microbial inoculants. Inoculants can boost productivity appreciably.

Thanks to advanced technology, researchers are now able to better understand the precise genes belonging to a community’s microbes. And as a result of that understanding, microbial relationships can be enhanced.

As we reach for new heights in precision agriculture, microbiome research is a key target.  That’s why it warrants attention, as well as a better broad understanding by producers and non-producers alike.

Researchers are geared up for this drive. According to one estimate, 80 researchers at 15 Canadian universities are already involved in some aspect of agricultural microbiome research.

They need to come together. Elsewhere – Europe, for example, as well as the United States -- researchers have joined forces to unite isolated microbiome studies.

Now, it’s time for Canada to do the same.

University of Guelph nutritional science Prof. David Ma is one of the scientists leading the charge for a national microbiome research network. When isolated research centres or clusters are drawn together through this network, they can take advantage of each others’ knowledge to try to improve their respective commodity, and work together more efficiently for new advances.

He says producers’ management practices to preserve soil health by enhancing microbial diversity is one example of how a beefed-up microbiome can aid crop production. Another is identifying potential bacteria and fungi to enhance crop root systems, for better yield or drought resistance. And finally, enhancing the protein quality in plants is another timely example, as some consumers move towards more plant-based diets.

“Microbiome research has the potential to make Canadian agri-food more competitive through the development of value-added products, and produce safe food for global markets,” he says. “In Canada, microbiome research across different disciplines -- soil, water, crops, livestock, food safety and nutrition -- is at various stages of advancement. But it’s poised to deliver immediate economic benefits.”

It’s not only crops that can benefit from researchers’ enhanced understanding of microbiomes.

In food animal production, microbiome-derived probiotics have the potential to enhance growth, digestion and immunity. At Guelph, huge strides have been made understanding how to work with the human gut and beneficial bacteria to fight disease and cut antibiotic use. So many of these findings may have parallel applications in livestock, if researchers can find the ways and means to work on them together.     

“Agri-food research needs to make soil, plants and animals more productive and disease resistant, without compromising plant and animal health, animal welfare or environmental sustainability,” says Ma. “By better understanding the microbiome, Canada can be the leader in addressing these needs with scientific solutions that could really help advance the agri-food sector.”