I just spent the last two days at a really great research meeting in London! Of course I would say that, because I helped to organise it…
I am the student representative for the Plants-Soils-Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society. Group secretary Franciska de Vries, committee member Emma Sayer, and I just organised the group’s first meeting and were really happy with how well it went. I agreed to write summary of the meeting for the BES bulletin, so thought I would share it here for anyone else who might be interested.
Digging Deeper: Research Challenges in Plant-Soil Interactions
On 2-3 October, 40 delegates from 11 countries descended on Charles Darwin House for the first meeting of the BES Plants-Soils-Ecosystems special interest group. The meeting consisted of three sessions plus posters addressing current research and future challenges to understanding plant-soil interactions and their influence on ecosystem functioning. The meeting was kicked-off with a welcome by Plants-Soils-Ecosystems Secretary, Franciska de Vries, who reminded us that the group was only conceived one year ago at the BES/SEB/BS joint symposium, also at Charles Darwin House. How far we’ve come in a year, with 155 members already!
The first session focused on carbon cycling and was headed by a keynote from BES Vice President, Richard Bardgett (University of Manchester). He highlighted the importance of plant traits in explaining variation in soil microbial communities and carbon stocks, and as drivers of ecosystem function and responses to climate change. He suggested one big challenge now is to determine the relative role of the different routes by which plant composition can influence soil properties under climate change, and particularly the need for better understanding of root traits and root exudates.
The rest of the session included interesting talks showing that nitrogen addition increases soil carbon stocks, tillage systems can alter soil microbial communities, home-field advantage for litter decomposition may not be as straightforward as we thought, ‘priming’ effects could be included in global carbon models, and litter inputs affect soil and microbial carbon stocks in consistent ways across ecosystems. The discussion session that followed emphasized the need for large-scale observational studies as well small-scale mechanistic studies, and the necessity to find ways to integrate these. By creating a strong community and discussing research plans frequently we’re more likely to find ways forward with this, and meetings like this one can only help!
Talks for the day were rounded-off with the Speed Poster Presentations, where poster presenters had 1 minute to entice other delegates to visit their poster and find out more. The subsequent poster session and wine reception provided ample opportunity for exploring the posters, discussing the talks and networking. This was followed by a conference dinner and visit to a local pub where discussions continued into the evening.
Day 2 started with the nutrient cycling session. The keynote address by David Johnson (University of Aberdeen) highlighted the importance of diversity to nutrient cycling. He discussed not just species richness, but intraspecific diversity, and how this can regulate nutrient cycling. He also drew attention to the diversity of chemical compounds in the soil and that neglecting this diversity hampers our understanding of nutrient cycling. He concluded that we still need multiple reductionist approaches to identify the most important drivers of nutrient cycles.
The nutrient session continued with talks addressing how C and N labelling in food web studies can give us insight into the relationships and functions of different components, how plant functional traits can help us to understand ecosystem process rates, especially if we tailor plant trait groups for our specific questions, and how root exudates can inhibit nitrification and this correlates with changes in microbial community structure. In the resulting discussion, chair Dario Fornara noted how frequently the word ‘complicated’ kept coming up and that highlighted how much more work there is to do. There is a need to scale up from mesocosms, and it was suggested that working in simplified field systems, such as some agricultural systems, might provide a way forward. Ideas for new studies, collaborations and much more continued to flow during the networking lunch that followed.
Session 3 focussed on communities and biodiversity. Jennifer Rowntree (Unversity of Manchester) provided a stimulating keynote address that highlighted the importance of plant genotypic diversity for host-parasite interactions and for feedbacks between plants and soils. She proposed that the challenge is now to relate biodiversity both within and among species to large-scale ecosystem processes. Further talks in the session revealed that increased plant diversity can enhance beneficial bacteria, and that soil CO2 concentration at natural CO2 springs alters fungi, bacteria and archaea community structure. There were also a number of talks focusing on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). We learned that plant sex-specific interactions with AMF are due to differences in resource use patterns between sexes, that tillage affects AMF communities but effects depend on soil depth, and that AMF range may be limited by soil and climatic properties rather than host plant.
The session was concluded with an enlightening talk by Dote Stone about methods for obtaining large-scale datasets when budgets are tight. Her top three tips were (1) talk to people and collaborate, (2) create detailed methods and stick to them – if you can send out sampling packs to ensure the same samples are collected in the same way while making it easy for collaborators to do so, that’s even better, and (3) think about your dataset and how you will handle it before you start collecting data.
The meeting was wrapped-up as it began, by Franciska de Vries. The student talk prize was awarded to Ellen Latz (Georg-August University Gottingen) and I was honoured to receive the student poster prize. Franciska encouraged members of the group to get involved, let us know what they would like from the group and any ideas for future meetings. Thanks were given to meeting sponsors: Wiley, Oxford University Press, the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, the Society for Experimental Biology, the British Society of Soil Science and, of course, the British Ecological Society. It was a great meeting and we look forward to many more in the future!