By: Noah Fierer
In early June, I’ll be attending the biennial meeting of the Soil Ecology Society in Colorado Springs. Despite being the home of Focus on the Family and one of the more conservative cities in the U.S. (the yin to Boulder’s yang) – it is a scenic place. More importantly the Soil Ecology Society meetings are great and this one is not to be missed. I’ve been going to these meetings since I was an innocent young graduate student and they are always worth attending, for the following reasons:
- good science
- not too big, not too small (typically around 150 attendees)
- nice mix of people at different career stages
- open bars
- friendly people (if you study dirt, it is easy to stay grounded)
I’m not just writing this blog post to rave about this meeting. Rather, consider this post a plea for help. I’ve been tasked with giving a brief ‘overview’ talk on the current state of soil ecology. Thus, I am asking for your input on what you think are the big unanswered and exciting questions being asked in the field of soil ecology. In other words, what topics are going to be driving exciting and novel work in the field of soil ecology over the next few years?
Here is a partial list to get the ball rolling (admittedly incomplete – I’m just throwing some ideas out there):
1) What determines soil C availability? A lot of the organic carbon stored in soil is old and not readily accessible to microorganisms. What are the mechanisms responsible for ‘protecting’ soil organic carbon from mineralization and how will global change factors (including elevated temperatures) alter soil C availability over time?
2) How are soil organisms interacting, either directly or indirectly? When we study belowground biota, we typically study groups of organisms in isolation. The microbiologists study bacteria or archaea, the mycologists study fungi, and the nematologists study nematodes, etc.. In reality, all of these soil organisms are interacting in important ways and these interactions are often missed in current investigations of belowground diversity.
3) What causes the priming effect? When labile substrates are added to soil, the mineralization of more recalcitrant substrates will often increase for reasons that are unclear (see here, here, and here, among many other papers on this topic). Is it a biotic process, an abiotic process, or a combination of both? How widespread is the priming effect and how important to overall rates of soil carbon storage?
4) What are viruses doing in soil? We know that viruses are abundant in soil and enormously diverse (with most of the viruses remaining undescribed). Do these viruses play a critical role in structuring soil biota and do they influence soil biogeochemical processes? – who knows. Soil viruses are the ‘known unknowns’.
I’d appreciate any input on other questions/topics to add. I don’t want this list to encapsulate only my narrow and biased worldview – I want input from all of you soil ecologists out there (a.k.a. soil microbial ecologists, terrestrial biogeochemists, ecosystem ecologists, soil zoologists, mycologists, etc..). Tell me what you think will be the new and exciting research directions in the field of soil ecology. Feel free to add your ideas to the comments section or just email me directly (noahfierer(at)gmail.com). All ideas considered.