Bioengineered Soil Microbes Could Help In Preventing Desertification
According to a new study, it may be possible to make arid ecosystems more resilient to climate change and overgrazing by tweaking the genes of microbes in the soil. The research consists of theoretical work using computer models currently and is in the early stages. However, the model suggests that there could be profound effects through even relatively small changes to key organisms.
According to Ricard Solé, a biophysicist at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, roughly around 40% of Earth’s land area is covered by drylands, the water-scarce regions, and these drylands are home to about 40% of the human population. Productive ecosystems that are adapted to low levels of moisture are present in many drylands. But such ecosystems can collapse and turn into much less hospitable deserts when they are subjected to overgrazing or a warming climate. After ecosystems pass a “tipping point”, these collapses often happen suddenly.
To see whether these tipping points could be shifted through genetic changes to microorganisms, Solé and his colleagues are working on their study. Solé explained stating an instance that it could be possible to take photosynthetic bacteria that already live in dryland soils and splice in genes that allow them to capture more phosphorus or store more water. Through this, plants will be able to grow and create shade, which would then support the growth of more bacteria if these engineered bacteria could enrich the soil.
Between species, such relationships that are mutually beneficial are described by Solé as “cooperative loops.” The creation of new cooperative loops was simulated by him and his colleagues in one set of models and how they affected the rest of the virtual ecosystem was observed by the team. They simulated microbes with increased ability to spread and disperse to new areas, in another set of models. The journal Royal Society Open Science published the study’s findings.
Simulated ecosystems were allowed to function under drier conditions in both types of modifications. Solé said that humanity can have more time to address underlying problems such as climate change as in theory, engineered microbes might allow dryland ecosystems to survive for several more decades. Laboratory experiments with real organisms would be started by next year, plan the researchers.
Solé noted that often, people fear that “Jurassic Park”-type scenarios could be caused by engineered organisms. In order to ensure the engineered microbes wouldn’t cause any unintended harm, extensive testing would be needed. However, extreme measures may be justified by the urgent state of the environmental crisis, in Solé’s view.
Solé said, “We need to gain some time as we are destroying everything and doing everything wrong already.”
Preventing Desertification with the help of Bioengineered Soil Microbes