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We need to talk about Nitrogen

Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer at Plantlife, has kindly written a blog post for us about the We need to talk about Nitrogen policy workshop.

We need to talk about Nitrogen

13 March 2017

By Jenny Hawley, Senior Policy Officer, Plantlife

Plantlife and PSE’s workshop on nitrogen deposition raises the profile of this forgotten issue

While greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution are widely recognised environmental problems, fewer people are aware of the impact of nitrogen in air pollution (or atmospheric nitrogen deposition) on fungi, plants, soils and ecosystems.

In January 2017, the BES Plants-Soils-Ecosystems SIG, in collaboration with the charity Plantlife, brought together stakeholders from government agencies, research institutes, farming bodies and NGOs to look at ways to tackle this. As the workshop report shows, one of the key recommendations focused on translating decades of scientific research into greater public awareness and political action.

Taking this on board, Plantlife and the Plant Link UK network published the report ‘We need to talk about nitrogen’ in March which threw the issue into the news headlines – and into the mix of debates around air quality, climate change, farming practices and wildlife protection. There was even a celebrity chef promoting his recipe for nettle soup on Radio 4’s Today programme!

What’s the problem?

Burning fossil fuels and intensive farming practices have lead to the buildup of pools of reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere. This nitrogen is then being deposited onto soils and vegetation – and stays there. As a result, nitrogen-loving species (such as nettles) are thriving while many other species of fungi, lichens and plants are declining – the environment is too fertile for them.

Significant effects include species loss, changes in soil chemistry and habitat degradation, as a result of eutrophication (excessive nutrient enrichment, leading to biodiversity loss), acidification or direct damage through toxicity. Early evidence suggests that this may have a knock-on effect on other species groups, including insects and birds. Overall, 63% of the UK’s most sensitive wildlife habitats are affected by excessive nitrogen deposition. In England alone, this figure rises to a remarkable 96%.

Atmospheric nitrogen pollutants come in the form of nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels and ammonia, mainly from farm livestock and fertilisers. Globally, NOx emissions are projected to stabilise, but ammonia emissions are expected to continue to rise until 2050, presenting a huge challenge.

What needs to happen next?

The results of our January workshop will inform future work by Plantlife, BES and others to communicate the science and potential solutions to politicians, environmental NGOs and others. We need to see action at local, national and international to reduce emissions, prevent their dispersal, mitigate the impacts and restore wildlife-rich sites.

Nitrogen deposition cuts across several policy areas, including agriculture, transport, energy, climate change, air quality, water quality and public health. While this makes it more complex, it also throws up plenty of opportunities for action. So let’s keep this on the agenda and keep talking about nitrogen.

PSE Sponsored Session at the 5th International Ecosummit, Montpellier 2016: Plant-Soil feedbacks: Bridging natural and agricultural Sciences


Earlier this year, Plant-Soil-Ecosystems hosted a session dedicated to Plant-Soil feedbacks at the 5th International Ecosummit, Montpellier France.The session was chaired by  Paul Kardol from SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) and Pierre Mariotte from EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) and took place on Wednesday 31st September 2016 at Le Corum Centre in Montpellier. The speakers and the titles of the presentations are listed in the session-programme, each talk has a unique code, e.g [S05.29], using which, more info on the speakers can easily be found. Unfortunately, abstracts are not available publicly.

Plant-soil feedbacks (PSF) is the term used to describe the processes by which plants modify soil biotic and abiotic properties, which in turn feedback positively or negatively on subsequent plant communities. They are integral to the understanding of plant community dynamics and species invasion. In agricultural systems, PSFs can be drivers of soil nutrient depletion or the build up of soil pathogens leading to yield loss.

In the past 30 years, research in this field has grown immensely, yet is still a relatively young field with many unanswered questions. In the light of climate change and the growing concern for food security, PSFs have been receiving more attention. The objective of the session was to give an overview of the current state of knowledge in PSFs from leading experts in the field and to provide an excellent opportunity to bring together natural and agricultural research. In this article, I will summarise the content of the session and highlight some of the most significant results.

Opening the session was established ecologist Prof. Marcel van der Heijden [S05.29] from Agroscope (Switzerland) presenting work on one of the most fundamental concepts in PSFs – the influence of soil biodiversity. One key result from van der Heijden’s work concluded that decreasing soil microbial diversity negatively affects plant growth. Thus, kicking off the morning with a simple, profound message – above-ground dynamics are irrefutably dependent on the below-ground!

Continuing on the theme of “The Fundamentals” in PSFs were two talks dedicated to the identification of the underlying forces that drive feedbacks. In a 6 year field study, Andrew Kulmatiski [205.31] utilised PSF predictions and experimental data to identify the key soil organisms which promote or impede growth of target plant species. In the second, Zia Mehrabi [205.32] reported that resource economic traits, namely nutrient conservative versus exploitative species, are key drivers of feedbacks (based on results of a meta-analysis of 95 plant species).

By exploring the consequences of using different crop varieties, the concept of nutrient conservative versus exploitative species was visited again in two talks bridging the agricultural side of PSFs. Gerlinde De Deyn [205.30] tested the hypothesis that fast-growing species promote a build up of soil pathogens by comparing traits of human-selected, fast-growing crop species against their semi-natural relatives. Similarly, Amélie Cantarel [205.34] showed that the use of different wheat varieties can influence the above and belowground traits, daringly concluding that the inclusion of lower yield varieties in crop systems could promote positive PSFs. On a slightly different note, the importance of PSFs in agriculture was stressed by Martijn Bezemer’s [205.33] talk demonstrating that disease suppression in greenhouse grown flowers is possible by recreating PSFs found in nature in controlled greenhouse environments.

Moving on, the session shifted its attention to the role of climate change in the outcome of PSFs. This topic was explored through the phenomenon of soil legacy effects via historical drought by Barbara Drigo [S05.35], Nicolas Legay,[S05.36], Aurore Kaisermann [S05.38] and one particularly clever field/lab experiment by Gemma Rutten [205.37] on PSFs in Mediterranean Oak forests across a precipitation gradient. The results were mixed; plants and soil microbial communities can show resistance to drought [S05.36], whereas other results suggest soil microbial communities can be degraded [S05.35]. Building on this theme, the final talk of the session by Tanvir Shahzad [205.40] highlighted the potential for deep root plants species to facilitate microbes in the co-mineralisation of deep, millennia old, inert carbon with labile carbon. Thus, claiming that as plants are forced to exploit deep soils due to changing land use and climate change, they pose a real risk of further adding to the high levels of CO2 emissions.

To summarise, the session covered the key areas of focus in PSFs from fundamental driving forces, through the manipulation of these interactions in agricultural settings and finally to the affects of climate change. The session was superbly organised and was well received by a full attentive audience. Plant-Soil-Ecosystems was very proud to host this session at such a prestigious event and would like to thank all involved for sharing their expertise, spreading the word and extending the network of people devoted to bridging the above and the belowground sciences!

If you would like to hear more, you can find interviews from Marcel van der Heijden and Gerlinde De Deyn made by Pierre Mariotte from the Ecosummit on the Journal of Ecology blog page by following the links.

Be sociable with Plants-Soils-Ecosystems


It’s been a while since we’ve had any posts on this blog, but that doesn’t mean that all is quiet behind the scenes at Plants-Soils-Ecosystems! The committee is planning some exciting activities for next year – watch this space.

In the meantime, you can connect with the special interest group, find out about studentships and job opportunities, and network with other members of the group via our social media feeds! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Help your special interest group reach 1000 followers before Christmas!

Image: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

Deadline for applications for our sequencing meta-analysis workshop is extended till 17 April!

We have extended the deadline for our workshop below with one week, until April the 17th! Also, we are now also welcoming applications from people who don’t have relevant sequencing data but can contribute in another meaningful way, or from people who do have sequencing data and would like to be involved but can’t attend in person. We are looking into possibilities of streaming the talks and videoconferencing remote contributors.


Sequencing meta-analysis workshop, Manchester, 18-20 May 2015

The BES special interest group Plants, Soils, Ecosystems is organizing a workshop to bring together ecologists and bioinformaticians to work on a meta-analysis of sequencing data with the aim of exploring patterns in belowground biodiversity.

The description and biogeography of belowground biodiversity is severely lagging behind that of aboveground diversity. This is despite increasing recognition of the importance of soil organisms for ecosystem functioning, including carbon and nitrogen cycling, and feedbacks to plant community composition, which underlie ecosystem services such as food production and climate mitigation. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that patterns of belowground biodiversity might not follow those of aboveground biodiversity. Thus, belowground biodiversity offers a unique opportunity to test and develop ecological theory. However, bringing together soil biodiversity data is challenging, especially when it comes to sequencing data, because pipelines and metadata are not standardized.


Confirmed speakers/leaders of the workshop are:

-Dr Kelly Ramirez, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, the Netherlands and GSBI

-Dr Rob Griffiths, CEH Wallingford, UK

-Dr Jennifer Talbot, Boston University, USA

-Dr Hyun Soon Gweon, CEH Wallingford, UK

-Dr John Davison, University of Tartu, Estonia

-Mattias de Hollander, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, the Netherlands


The aim of this workshop is to bring together ecologists and bioinformaticians to do a meta-analysis of sequencing data of soil microbial communities. Both publicly available data and participants’ data will be used, and the anticipated outcome is a publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The workshop will consist of lectures by our invited speakers to highlight recent advances, and participants will be expected to give a short presentation about their background and expertise. The majority of time will be spent identifying ecological questions to address with the data, analyzing the data in novel ways, and drafting a manuscript.

Spaces for this workshop are limited, and we are seeking motivated ecologists and bioinformaticians of all career stages to participate in, and contribute to, the workshop. Participants are expected to bring their own dataset of soil microbial (principally bacterial) community sequencing data (including metadata), and to have some experience in analyzing sequencing data.

The call for participants is now open. Applications should consist of a one-page CV, description of the dataset(s) that the applicant will bring to the workshop, and a statement (500 words maximum) of what the applicant will contribute to, and hopes to get out of, the workshop, including proposed hypotheses to be explored during the workshop.

Send your application to before April the 17th 5pm. Applicants will be notified whether they have been selected for the workshop by April the 24th. For questions email Franciska de Vries:

Registration fee: £75 (students)/£100 (BES members)/£125 (others)



We are also for data contributions and distance involvement in this project! If you think you have relevant data and would like to be involved, please email


International Year of Soils (#IYS2015)

Perhaps you have already heard the buzz about soils, and why everyone should be thinking about them this year, and every year; 2015 is the International Year of Soils! Just hop on Twitter and look up posts tagged with #IYS2015 – every day new photographs and articles are being posted. There has been a plethora of great pieces on the importance of soil, including ten things everyone should know about soil, Resources from the FAO (including the infographic below), the Soils Atlas, and another cool infographic form Mother Nature Network. There was a recent New York Times piece on no-till farming practices and how they benefit soils here, and the Guardian recently published a piece on how we depend on soils here. With more articles being published as the year progresses and various conferences and meetings taking place, there are plenty of ways to join in with the discussion.

The International Year of Soils is in full swing, with activities ranging from those geared towards professional soil scientists and soil ecologists to public outreach campaigns. To learn more about activities that are happening in your area check out the FAO calendar of events here. Do you have an interest in learning more about soils in an online course? Check out this free online course from Lancaster University here. Have an interest in reaching out to younger audiences? Check out the colouring book, children’s book, and card game from the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative here.

FAO-Infographic-IYS2015-fs2-en (1)

What can you do for the soil?
Racking your brain for some concrete actions you can take to be more considerate of the soils beneath your feet? Taking small steps to be more mindful about your food consumption and food waste practices are good places to start. Compost food wastes to create nutrient rich compost to use in your garden beds – more information from the FAO here. Purchase locally-sourced food, and support local farmers and community supported agriculture groups (CSAs- more information here) to reduce the carbon footprint of your meals. Grow your own food – whether you live in an urban or rural environment a variety of gardening options are available: try growing fresh herbs in the windowsill or a large pot of cherry tomatoes on your apartment balcony. Educate yourself about the soils in your area and foods that grow best given your climate conditions here. Use that compost pile you have been building up to fertilize your garden, and you will have come full circle.

Get your friends, family, and children involved, because we all need food to survive and sustain ourselves. Take some time to appreciate the soils that fulfil such a fundamental requirement of our existence. Think about the little steps you can take to improve the soils in your area, or reduce your carbon footprint to help lead to a healthier planet.

Relena Ribbons is a FONASO Ph.D. fellow at Bangor University and the University of Copenhagen researching tree species effects on soils and nutrient cycling. She loves gardening. Find her on Twitter: @relenaribbons, on her website, or drop her an email:

You, me, and the EMP (Earth Microbiome Project)

In this guest post, Dr. Dorota Porazinska of the University of Colorado introduces the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP), an initiative to understand microbial communities, their diversity and function at the global scale, and explains how researchers can help the EMP as part of their own research projects. Communities like Plants-Soils-Ecosystems provide great environments for connecting like-minded researchers and encouraging collaboration – if you’re interested, read on, and get in touch! Now, over to Dorota:

The EMP was initiated in 2010 to understand patterns in microbial communities across different spatial, temporal and evolutionary scales, to understand the functional basis for these patterns, and to provide a portal for the analysis and visualization of the data. The EMP has primarily generated data from amplicon sequencing of Bacteria and Archaea to date, although expansion to other taxa including eukaryotes and viruses, and other forms of data generation including metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, and metabolomics, is anticipated in future.


The EMP is a massively collaborative project. Individual projects are stand-alone, hypotheses-driven studies contributed by PIs from around the world. The EMP has generated 16S rRNA profiles for >30,000 samples representing >40 ecological biomes, including oceans, sediments, rivers, lakes, human, plant- and animal-associated ecosystems. Soils constitute ~10% of these samples, and although many project contributions to date have been from agricultural sites from the North American meridian, the EMP results to date confirm our expectations of these ecosystems: high diversity, many novel taxa, and limited community overlap among biomes and geographic locations.


The success of the EMP depends on your participation.

If you join the EMP, we will:

  • Extract DNA and sequence 16S rRNA amplicons free of charge using standardized protocols
  • Archive the data and make it publically available
  • Perform initial analysis of the sequencing data (quality-filtering, OTU-clustering, taxonomy assignment, and beta diversity analyses integrated with a vast database of other studies)

To join the EMP, we ask that you submit:

  • A one-paragraph proposal that describes your study, focusing on what the samples are and what spatial, temporal or evolutionary questions your sample set addresses in the microbial world
  • Information about each sample (“sample metadata”) that must be provided in standardized format (the EMP will assist with this) prior to sample receipt

For detailed information about goals and protocols, please visit the EMP website. Note the EMP data release policy, which is that all data are made freely available to the community upon sequencing.

For specific questions about submission of the proposal and the mandatory metadata, please email: dorota dot porazinska at colorado dot edu