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ARS Home » Plains Area » Brookings, South Dakota » Integrated Cropping Systems Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #354596

Research Project: Soil and Crop Management for Enhanced Soil Health, Resilient Cropping Systems, and Sustainable Agriculture in the Northern Great Plains

Location: Integrated Cropping Systems Research

Title: Just scratching the surface: how do we measure responses of soil microorganisms?

item Lehman, R - Michael

Submitted to: Trade Journal Publication
Publication Type: Trade Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 10/20/2017
Publication Date: 11/15/2017
Citation: Lehman, R.M. 2017. Just scratching the surface: how do we measure responses of soil microorganisms? Farm Journal, Nov. 2017.

Interpretive Summary:

Technical Abstract: Our collective knowledge of soil microorganisms might be described as primitive, especially compared with other areas of science, particularly medical sciences. Some of this disparity in advancement is due to societal emphasis, but there are also fundamental obstacles that slow our understanding of soil microorganisms. For example, while there are probably millions of different kinds of microorganisms, there are only a dozen or so common forms that can be visually distinguished under a microscope. Because of the high rate of DNA exchange among different types of microorganisms, there is little agreement among scientists about how to use the term species and what measurements are necessary to define a species. It is challenging to study the ecology of a diverse group of organisms without being able to reliably separate them by species and characterize their unique capabilities. The existing systems that classify microorganisms are continually changing as new knowledge accumulates, to the extent even long-studied microbes are reclassified and abruptly given new names. Limitations in knowledge about the basic biology and ecology of soil microorganisms restrict our ability to routinely enumerate the numbers of individuals within a specific population or measure the activities of these populations in situ. Developing robust relationships between reliable measures of soil microbial indicators and the health of soil requires multidisciplinary, long-term study. As we address the most practical questions regarding soil health measurement and the biological processes at its heart, it is important to appreciate this phase of great discovery concerning soil microbiology. We are in this phase because of the demand for practical soil health management solutions by agricultural stakeholders. Because you have been asking tough questions, scientists have been busy establishing a solid foundation to support reliable and practical measures of soil health.