Enhancing Soil Health: The Role of Biochar in Cultivating a Thriving Soil Microbiome

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Microorganisms play a crucial role in soil health, maintaining ecological balance, and providing a resilient environment for plants. Biochar, with its porous structure, enhances soil health and productivity by promoting microbial diversity.

 

By breaking down organic matter, cycling nutrients, and fostering symbiotic relationships with plants, microorganisms are essential to soil health. The community of microorganisms is called the microbiome. This is where microorganisms interact with each other and their environment, playing essential roles in maintaining ecological balance and contributing to the health of their host, whether it’s soil or a plant. The microbiome provides a rich and resilient environment for plants. It strengthens the structure of the soil, increases water retention, and inhibits dangerous pathogens. By boosting microbial diversity, improving nutrient availability, and offering beneficial microbes a stable home, adding biochar to soil can increase these advantages. Because of its porous structure, biochar aids in the retention of moisture and nutrients, which fosters the growth of microorganisms and improves soil health and productivity even more. 

What is a “microbiome”? It is a beautiful place where microbes live. These are tiny living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Well, viruses aren’t so nice, but the others are crucial for a healthy ecosystem. Microbes have a significant impact on human health and wellness despite being so small that they must be seen under a microscope. In the biochar world, it is the soil microbiome that we want to talk about.

 

Illustration of the soil microbiome. 

 

The numerous microorganisms that are found across Earth’s terrestrial surface have a significant role in influencing the environment around them. Up to 10 billion distinct types of microorganisms can be found in one gram of soil. A wide variety of microbial communities exist, mostly made up of bacteria, but also include archaea, protists, fungi, viruses, and other microscopic creatures in various abundances. They are all cultivated by the distinct soil qualities found in each environment. Healthy soil is deeply dependent on the microbial community. 

Soil microbiomes help: 

  • Plant immunity to pathogens– Beneficial microbes outcompete harmful pathogens for resources and space, reducing pathogen survival. Some soil microbes produce antibiotics and other compounds that inhibit or kill pathogens. Nutrient Cycling, which means microbes improve nutrient availability, leading to healthier plants that can better resist diseases. 
  • Plants acquire their needed minerals and nutrients- They aid in decomposing organic matter which means breaking organic material into nutrients. Also, nitrogen fixation which converts atmospheric nitrogen into forms plants can use. Aiding in forming symbiotic relationships which means forming partnerships such as mycorrhizae that extend root systems for better nutrient access.   
  • Creating soil structure that allows the water holding capacity to increase dramatically. 
  • Sequestering carbon in the dead and alive microbial biomass. The soil microbiome helps sequester carbon by decomposing organic matter, forming soil aggregates, stabilizing organic carbon, enhancing plant growth, and microbial respiration. It converts plant and animal residues into stable compounds, forms soil aggregates, and incorporates carbon into microbial biomass, retaining it in the soil.

And these aren’t even all the benefits provided by the soil microbiome.

 

How can biochar support a healthy soil microbiome and in doing so help plant health and sequester carbon? 

 

Many of the benefits that the soil microbiome provides are areas where biochar has already been shown to be effective. These would help give plants access to nutrients, improving soil structure, sequestering carbon, and in aiding in the formation of symbiotic relationships in soil such as mycorrhizae.

Chemical fertilizers are less work for plants to consume making them a convenient source of plant vitality. However, they can have detrimental effects on soil microbiomes making it harder for microorganisms to thrive. If you look at raw, organic soil with no fertilizer present under a microscope you will see an active and dynamic microbial world. Take a look at the same soil after chemical fertilizers have been added and you’ll see how much that microbial activity has been suppressed. 

ARTi conducted research on the impact of biochar on corn soil in collaboration with Integrity Soil Health’s Randal Meyer, Ph.D. Using eleven different sample types—including some of our brands of pure biochar, compost+biochar, and biochar+microbe mixes—Randy’s investigation produced some striking findings. The soil originated from an extensive corn trial experiment that the ARTi team has been carrying out over a number of years. The biochar soil samples from the corn study demonstrated intriguing and discernible “microbiome diversity and nutrient cycling,” according to Randy’s response to us at ARTi. Furthermore, among the samples examined, the soil + biochar sample in this treatment group has the best fungi biomass, with 100% biochar (the corn was grown in biochar without even any soil which we don’t recommend) having a moderate quantity of fungi. We have a full blog on this project which can be viewed here at this (link).

Studies on how biochar can enhance the benefits that the microbiome already adds to soil are ongoing. Biochar promotes microbial growth, increases nutrient diversity, and provides a favorable habitat for microorganisms due to its water-holding capacity and high adsorption properties. Biochar’s alkaline nature raises soil pH, affecting microbial communities significantly. It reduces soil bulk density, enhances water-holding capacity, and influences nitrogen emissions and bacterial communities. Biochar alters soil agglomerate structures, nutrient content, and cation exchange capacity, impacting the abundance and diversity of microorganisms. It also affects the content of nutrients in the soil and the microbial community, promoting plant growth and enhancing environmental stress tolerance. 

The application of biochar in soil increases the organic matter and nutrient contents, promoting the growth and activity of soil microorganisms and enzymes. There is a close relationship between soil microorganisms, enzymes, and bacterial community structure, with biochar application positively impacting soil urease activity and microbial abundance (Vithanage et al 2018; Xu et al 2020; Feng et al 2021).

 

ARTi has worked in the microbiome on more the several projects. 

 

Mechanisms Of Biochar on Soil Microorganisms

 

The ways biochar affects soil microorganisms include: 

  • Providing a good environment for microorganisms to live and grow 
  • Enhancing microbial growth by improving soil pH, water content, and aggregate content 
  • Offering nutrients for soil microorganisms 
  • Reducing harmful substances in the soil, lessening their toxic impact on microorganisms
  • Influencing microorganisms through microbial signalling molecules.

It must be noted that positive effects on microbial life from biochar application are very much dependent on the quality of the biochar itself and the feedstock it was made from. Biochar impacts agrochemicals and can carry toxic substances, affecting both target and non-target organisms. It has been reported to harm non-target biota, causing reproductive, growth, and DNA issues in earthworms and altering soil microbiomes by shifting the fungi-to-bacteria ratio. (Brtnicky et al 2021) So biochar characterization and comprehensive knowledge of the application environment are needed to avoid any undesirable effects. 

 

Microbial Power for Carbon-Rich Soils and Transforming Soil into Carbon Sinks of the Future

 

Certain soil microbes can enhance soil carbon sequestration and retention, potentially promoted through soil inoculation. As this is a new area of study and one with much potential, systematic testing through plant-microbe interaction studies is recommended, focusing on the microbes’ ability to support the accumulation of stable carbon. Additionally, exploring how these fungi deliver carbon to mineral surfaces or deeper soil layers via targeted amendments is crucial. (Mason A.R.G.et al, 2023) One of the amendments to be examined for sure will be biochar as it already possesses carbon sequestration that perhaps could become a further enhancement to microbial solutions to soil carbon sequestration.

 

References: 

 

Brtnicky, Martin., Datta R., Holatko J., Et al.,(2021): A critical review of the possible adverse effects of biochar in the soil environment,        Science of The Total Environment, Volume 796

 

Feng H.l., Xu C.S., He H.H., Zeng Q., Chen N., Li X.L., Ren T.B., Ji ,X.M., Liu G.S. (2021): Effect of biochar on soil enzyme activity and        bacterial community and its mechanism. Environmental Science, 42: 4

 

Mason A.R.G.et al.(2023): Microbial solutions to soil carbon sequestration, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 417 

 

Vithanage M., Bandara T., Al-Wabel M.I., Abduljabbar A., Usman, A.R., Ahmad M., Ok Y.S. (2018): Soil enzyme activities in waste biochar  amended multi-metal contaminated soil; effect of different pyrolysis temperatures and application rates. Communications    in Soil Science and Plant Analysis, 49: 635–64

 

Xu G.P., Teng Q.M., Shen Y.Y., Qiu Z.Q., Zhang D.N., He C.X., Mou , H.F., Zhou L.W., Mou Z.Y. (2020): Effects of banana stems-leaves  biochar on soil properties and control of banana Fusarium Wilt.  Ecology and Environmental Sciences, 29: 2373–2384

 

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