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The secret to richer, carbon-capturing soil? Treat your microbes well

Stashed in: Science!, Awesome, science, Australia!, Gardening, Gardening, Botany, Microbiome

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One of the most frustrating things about our current scientific system is how sucky it is at crossing the barrier between academic research and widely-applicable actionable insight. Here is a perfect case study from Australia of how attempts to sequester carbon in the soil are being hampered despite cheap, easy, well-understood solutions.

I love these good microbes. And I always appreciate a good microbe story. 

The way that soil locks up greenhouse gas has been frustratingly mysterious, but the basics are clear: After plants suck up the carbon, the critters (microbes and fungi and insects) swarming in the topsoil chew up plant molecules, subjecting them to one chemical reaction after another as they pass through a fantastically complex food web. If everything goes right, the end result is microscopic bricks of stable carbon, which form the foundation of rich black soil.


The idea that drove Kirkby was elegant in its simplicity. “The way you get carbon into the ground,” he said, “is to take plant residue and turn it into microorganisms.” To to grow microorganisms you have to feed them.

They will eat corn stalks and wheat straw, but that, alone, is not a balanced diet. That’s like giving people nothing to eat but a mountain of sugar. There are certain elements that all creatures on earth need to build the bodies of the next generation: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen. These six elements are the basic ingredients of living organisms. By leaving stalks and stems on the fields they were providing a lot of carbon, and oxygen and hydrogen comes easily from the air, but the bugs were lacking in nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. Provide enough of these missing building blocks, Kirkby figured, and the soil microbes would finally be able to consume the plant residue. He tried it. It worked.

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