restoring functional diversity
There is more to restoration than simply putting plants in the ground. Vital to ecosystem function and health is the composition and diversity of soil microbiota. This is due to the complex interactions between plants and this biota that we are only just beginning to understand. For example, some plants rely on fungi to assist with nutrient uptake, with the fungi receiving sugars in return. Habitat loss severs the links between above and below ground ecosystem functions, and restoration projects must address this to be successful in the long term.
We are developing innovative new uses of genomic barcoding and skimming techniques to characterise, monitor and visualise soil microbiota in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. For example, metabarcoding combines DNA taxonomy and next generation sequencing to rapidly and accurately assess biodiversity.
This new technology allowed us to ask the question: “Are aboveground restoration actions having an impact on the belowground functional microbiota?”
We are pioneering this research, and in our maiden study we found the answer to be ‘yes’ - the more mature a restoration site was, the closer the soil microbiota was to our reference remnant vegetation. In fact, we can track the relationship between changes in microbial communities with the age of restoration sites, right up until they begin to match that of remnant vegetation. As well as essential to ecosystem function, these microbial communities are indicators of the health and stage of restoration projects.
We now have a very powerful tool at our fingertips. Through metabarcoding and other genomics approaches, we can rapidly assess and track changes in ecosystem function and monitor it throughout the various stages of restoration.
The team is also extending our work beyond monitoring microbiota. Our goal is to also apply these cutting-edge genomic approaches to include insects and plants to assist with ecological surveillance of restoration sites.