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Do Soil Microbes Influence Plant Response to Heat Waves?

Rachel Rubin, PhD candidate at Northern Arizona University, is interested in the intersection of extreme climate events and disturbance, which together have a much greater impact on plant communities. She and her team at Northern Arizona University are investigating the role soil microbes play in plant response to heat waves, including associated impacts to microbial-available and plant-available water.

soil microbes

Plants have a tight co-evolutionary history with soil microbes. It has been said that there is no microbe-free plant on earth.

Because heat waves threaten plant productivity, they present a growing challenge for agriculture, rangeland management, and restoration.

Can Soil Microbes Increase Heat Resistance?

Many plants maintain mutualistic associations with a diverse microbiome found within the rhizosphere, the region of soil that directly surrounds plant roots. These “plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria” and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi provision limiting resources including water, phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for photosynthetically derived sugars. However, we understand very little about whether extreme events can disrupt these interactions.

soil microbes

Fig. 1. Fine roots exploring the inoculum that was added as a band between layers of potting mixture.

Rachel and her team exposed rhizosphere communities to heat stress and evaluated the performance of native grasses both in the greenhouse, and transplanted under an artificial heat wave. They hypothesized that locally-sourced inoculum (a sample of local soil containing the right microbes) or even heat-primed inoculum would help alleviate water stress and improve survival of native grasses.

The Experiments

Rubin started in the greenhouse by planting Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis, C4 grass) and Arizona Fescue (Festuca arizonica, C3 grass) and assessed their responsiveness to locally collected soil inoculum that had either been left intact, pre-heated or sterilized (Fig. 1). Rubin says, “We expected that our plants would benefit the most from having intact soil microbe communities. But, we were surprised to find very large differences between plant species. Blue Grama performed the best with intact inoculum, whereas Arizona Fescue performed better with pre-heated or sterilized soil”. This could mean that Blue Grama is more dependent on its microbiome, whereas Arizona Fescue engineers a rhizosphere that contains more parasitic microbes rather than mutualistic microbes. Rachel says that understanding this relationship is important for tailoring plant restoration projects to local conditions. Plants that exhibit high levels of mutualisms with their rhizosphere might require an extra inoculum “boost” in order to successfully establish in highly degraded soil, whereas we should not bother to inoculate plants that tend to harbor parasites within their rhizosphere.

soil microbes

Fig. 2. A heated plot in the foreground connected to infrared lamps, water content and matric potential sensors, and EM50 data loggers.

After the team studied these responses, they planted the grasses into a degraded section of a grassland and installed an array of 1000-Watt ceramic infrared lamps mounted on steel frames (Fig. 2) to address whether inoculation influenced plant performance and survival. With help from a savvy undergraduate electrical engineering major (Rebecca Valencia), Rubin simulated a two-week heat wave while monitoring soil temperature and moisture using water content and water potential sensors.  She also measured plant performance (height, leaf number and chlorophyll content) before, during, and after the event. Control plots had aluminum “dummy lamps” to account for shading.

Soil Microbes

An infrared photo, which is how Rachel determined that the heating footprint was evenly distributed on all the plants. The scale bar on the right is in degrees C.

Data obtained from soil sensors helped Rachel to measure heating treatment effects as well as rule out a potential cause for plant mortality: soil moisture. “Soil temperature was on average 10 degrees hotter in heated plots than control plots, but matric potential and soil water content were completely unaffected by heating. This tells us that the grasses died from reasons other than water stress– perhaps a top-kill effect.” Although growing concern over heat waves in agriculture is centered around accompanying droughts, this experiment demonstrates that heating can produce negative effects on some species even when water is in plentiful supply.

Next week:  Learn the results of Rachel’s experiments, some of the challenges the team faced, and the future of this research.

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