16 April 2024

Microbes are a key resource for slowing desertification


Chinese investigation shows how microbes play a relevant role in countering desertification through their ability to manage essential soil nutrients

by Matteo Cavallito


Microbes found in the interstitial spaces between soil particles could be a viable solution to managing desertification. This is supported by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science in a study published in the journal Earth-Science Review. The research, a statement explains, looks specifically at how the use of microorganisms in different regions of the Planet “has had measurable impacts on alleviating desertification.”

The importance of microbes

“Soil microbes represent a critical and often underappreciated component of terrestrial ecosystems,” the study states. “These microscopic organisms, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, and other microorganisms, inhabit the soil in vast numbers and diversity.” They perform critically important activities. These include, for example, decomposition of organic matter, nutrient cycling management that improves soil fertility, and, of course, carbon sequestration from the atmosphere.

Particularly relevant in countering desertification is precisely the contribution to nutrient management. Microbes, in fact, have a significant impact on the availability of two key elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

“Nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria,” reports the note, “convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, which is taken up by plants as ammonium ions. Peas, beans and other leguminous plants form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root systems, so they can be important crops to grow in arid regions.” Fungi also “can extend their hyphal networks deeper into the soil, therefore increasing the nutrient and water availability to root systems to encourage growth.”


Anti-desertification strategies around the world

The authors named three examples of interventions. In the 1990s, for example, the Chinese government launched the Grain for Green plan to counter desertification as a consequence of deforestation and from overgrazing by promoting pasture regeneration through the use of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, and different types of bacteria, including nitrogen-fixers. The operation reportedly contributed to increased agricultural yields.

In the semi-arid Sahel region of Africa, the Great Green Wall project on the Sahara border aims to fight food insecurity, poverty, and migration due to land degradation.

In this case, proponents acted to create micro-climates that are favorable for soil microbial activity of mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria and improved soil health. In southwestern U.S. cities, on the other hand, the use of microorganisms has helped counter urban desertification. Finally, the Al Ain oasis project in the UAE desert resulted in improved soil water retention through the designed application of microbes.

Pay attention to environmental characteristics

Diversification of microbe communities in the soil, in short, is a useful strategy to counter phenomena such as drought. However, it must be carefully planned taking into account, in particular, different environments. Indeed, microorganisms may react differently depending on the type of soil and different interactions with other microbes already present.

Further studies will be needed in the coming years to improve the application of microbes in soil. But their potential in this regard is promising.

“The management and mitigation of desertification have become pressing global priorities as the consequences of soil degradation and land loss become increasingly evident,” the research explains. In this context, attention must be paid to the “intricate mechanisms” that characterize the actions of microbes. Understanding these dynamics enables the development of effective strategies to restore degraded lands.