Machiavellian microbes: how climate change impacts on soil microbial communities and the consequences for plant growth and community composition

Climate change is leading to more extreme weather events, such as droughts and heatwaves. This is acutely illustrated by the hot and dry summers that we have experienced in Europe three years in a row now. The aboveground effects of drought are obvious: plants stop growing, turn brown, and might die, which can lead to changes in plant community composition. But belowground, hidden from our eyes, the consequences of drought are at least as drastic: during drought and especially after rewetting strong changes in microbial communities occur, and these changes can have long-lasting consequences for their functioning.

In our research, we aim to elucidate the mechanisms through which drought and other extreme events such as flooding and heatwaves affect soil microbial communities. While the direct effects of these disturbances on soil microbial communities are relatively well-understood, we mostly focus on indirect effects through changes in plant physiology, growth, and community composition. We are particularly interested in the effects that changes in plant root exudation under these disturbances can have on soil microbial communities.

In turn, we want to quantify the consequences of these changes in soil microbial communities for their functioning: what are the consequences for soil carbon and nitrogen cycling processes? How do changes in microbial communities feed back to plant growth and community composition? And do these changes make ecosystems more or less vulnerable to future extreme climatic events, or other disturbances? To answer these questions, we use a combination of field experiments, field-based mesocosm experiments, and laboratory and glasshouse-based experiments. The methods we use include amplicon sequencing, metagenomic sequencing, and metabolomics.

Scientists involved in this research

Océane Nicolitch1
Alex Williams1
Reuben Margerison1
Mariana Gliesch-Silva2
Leo Hinjosa-Sánchez2
Eileen Enderle2
Franciska de Vries2 (PI)

1 The University of Manchester
2  University of Amsterdam

Funded by

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
European Research Council (ERC)

In cooporation with

Chris Knight, The University of Manchester
Rob Griffiths, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) Bangor
Harro Bouwmeester, University of Amsterdam
Albert Tietema, University of Amsterdam