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How Soil Microorganisms Get Out of Step through Climate Change

Neuherberg, December 3, 2014. Scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München, in collaboration with colleagues from the TU München and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), have studied how soil microorganisms react to climatic change. Their result: Extreme weather events such as long periods of drought and heavy rainfall have a strong impact on the metabolic activity of microbes. This may lead to a change in the nutrient balance in soils and, in extreme cases, may even increase greenhouse gas emissions like nitrous oxide to the atmosphere concentrations.

Dr. Silvia Gschwendtner, Prof. Dr. Michael Schloter | Source: HMGU

In order to observe the impact of climate change on soil microorganisms under as natural conditions as possible, the scientists transferred intact young beech seedlings from a cool, wet, northwest-exposed site of a slope approximately corresponding to present climatic conditions to a warmer site exposed to the southwest. This transfer simulated temperature and precipitation profiles as can be expected from climate change. “We tried to keep initial soil type and nutrient content sin soil as comparable as possible to avoid additional factors influencing our data”,” said Prof. Dr. Michael Schloter, head of the Research Unit Environmental Genomics (EGEN) at Helmholtz Zentrum München. “In addition to these natural changes due to the transplantation of the trees, we  exacerbated the scenario by simulating long periods of drought followed byheavy rainfall,” he added.

To determine the dynamics of the soil microflora, the researchers studied marker genes of microorganisms that are typically involved in nutrient turnover. They found that already a transfer from NW to SW without simulating extreme weather conditions led to a drastic change in metabolic activity and in the composition of the microorganisms. “Under extreme climatic conditions these effects were even more pronounced,” said Dr. Silvia Gschwendtner (EGEN), who carried out the research project. The findings indicate that the activity of microorganisms primarily involved in denitrification is positively stimulated by the chosen conditions. “This has an impact on the competition between plants and microorganisms for nitrogen,” Gschwendtner explained. “Furthermore, this may also lead to increased emission rates of the climate-relevant greenhouse gas N2O.”

Jung beech trees transferred to southwest area | Source: HMGU

Further information

Denitrification: In denitrification, the nitrate present in the soil available to plants is converted to gaseous nitrogen and to nitrogen oxides.


Publication:

Gschwendtner, S. et al.(2014)Climate change induces shifts in abundance and activity pattern of bacteria and archaea catalyzing major transformation steps in nitrogen turnover in a soil from a Mid-European beech forest, PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114278

Link to publication

The Helmholtz Zentrum München as the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the objective of developing personalized medicine for the diagnosis, therapy and prevention of wide-spread diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To this end, it investigates the interactions of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Zentrum's headquarters is located in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. The Helmholtz Zentrum München employs around 2,200 people and is a member of the Helmholtz Association, which has 18 scientific-technical and biological-medical research centres with around 34,000 employees.

The independent Research Unit Environmental Genomics (EGEN) investigates the structure and function of microbial communities in the soil and identifies abiotic and biotic parameters which regulate abundance, diversity and activity of the corresponding microbiomes. The aim of EGEN is to better utilize the genetic resources of the soil microflora for a sustainable bioeconomy. EGEN is part of the Department of Environmental Sciences.

TheTechnische Universität München (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 500 professors, 10,000 academic and non-academic staff, and 36,000 students. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, reinforced by schools of management and education. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with a campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel and Carl von Linde have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, it regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

The Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT) is a public corporation according to the laws of the State of Baden-Württemberg. It fulfills both the mission of a university and of a national research center within the Helmholtz Association. The main topics of research are energy, the natural and manmade environment as well as society and technology, ranging from fundamental questions to application-oriented research. With approximately 9,400 employees, among them more than 6,000 in research and teaching, as well as 24,500 students, KIT is one of the largest research and education institutions in Europe. KIT pursues its tasks in the knowledge triangle of research – teaching – innovation.
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Scientific Contact:

Prof. Dr. Michael Schloter, Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt (GmbH), Ingolstaedter Landstr. 1, D- 85764 Neuherberg - Tel. +49 89 3187-2304,