Science is beginning to shape the future of plant cultivation. For us, it's all about diversity.

Updated: Jul 31, 2018

For many years, any scientist addressing soil microbes was most likely examining how some particular microbe species appeared to correlate with some particular plant pathogen. In academia, hyper-focused inquiry rules the day.

So it’s fascinating to watch now as science documents, piece by piece, what it largely ignored (with exceptions, for sure) during the 20th century: that it’s all about diversity.

In this paper, published in January in the journal Science, researchers based at the University of Colorado, Boulder, show that a very small number (about 500) of bacterial species are found across most soils the world over, and that these species account for about half of all soil bacteria. While this may be the first time it has been so measured, the notion is not new; there are researchers who have long said that a relative few bacteria dominate the world.

What we really find interesting here is the two avenues down which this field of study can lead. On the one hand, product makers likely see value in a set of identifiable, ubiquitous species because it offers a grounding for a wide array of scientific inquiry aimed at industry applications.

On the other hand, there’s the reaction that we share here at Foothill Bio: for us, it’s all about those other, rarer microbes. Our approach is influenced in large part by the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, who has for years been helping farmers around the world develop techniques that efficiently build soil microbial communities that are unique to their locations.

Without those rarer microbes, of which there is a vast number, none of this is possible. Without them we cannot build the sort of well-rounded, diverse microbe communities that allow plants to feed themselves as nature intended, and so to reach their full potential. It’s therefore important for anyone growing plants to grasp the techniques by which we can promote all the microbes that exist naturally in a location.

For confirmation of that approach there’s this study, published in November in the journal Nature Microbiology. For this one, an international team compared data from some 2,000 previous soil analyses from around the world, the first study of its kind – to do it, they had to invent a method for overcoming methodological differences in those previous studies.

The conclusion drawn: "rarer taxa are more important for structuring soil communities than abundant taxa," wrote the international team, led by University of Manchester researcher Franciska de Vries.

As we like to say: in soil as in most things, diversity is key.

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