Getting to the roots of serpentine soils

Alexandria in the field observing the plants and soil.

When an organism grows in different environments, some traits change to fit the conditions. For example, if a houseplant is grown in the shade, it might grow to stretch out long and thin to reach as much light as possible. If that same plant were grown in the sun, it would grow thicker stems and more leaves that are not spread as far apart. This response to the environment helps plants grow in the different conditions they find themselves in.

Flexibility is especially important when a plant is living in a harsh environment. One such environment is serpentine soils. These soils are created from the weathering of the California state rock, Serpentinite. Serpentine soils have high amounts of toxic heavy metals, do not hold water well, and have low nutrient levels. Low levels of water and nutrients found in serpentine soils limit plant growth. In addition, a high level of heavy metals in serpentine soils can actually poison the plant with magnesium!

Combined, these qualities make it so that most types of plants are not able to grow on serpentine soils. However, some plant species have traits that help them tolerate these harsh conditions. Species that are able to live in serpentine soils, but can also grow in other environments, are called serpentine-indifferent.

Alexandria has been working with serpentine soils since 2011 when she was first introduced to them during an undergraduate research experience with her ecology professor. Alexandria was especially intrigued by this challenging environment and how organisms are able to thrive in it, even with the harsh characteristics.

Dot-seed plantain plants in the growth chamber.

To learn more, she started to read articles about previous research on plants that can only grow in serpentine soils. Alexandria learned that these plant species are generally smaller than closely related species. This was interesting, but she still had questions. She noticed the other experiments had compared plant size in different species, not within one species. She thought the next step would be to look at how plants that are the exact same species would respond to serpentine and non-serpentine soil environments. To explore this question, she would need to use serpentine-indifferent plant species because they can grow in serpentine soils and other soils.

Just as a houseplant grows differently in the sun or shade, plants grown in serpentine and non-serpentine soils might change to survive in their environment. Alexandria thought one of these changes could be happening in the roots. She decided to focus on plant roots because of their importance for plant survival and health. Roots are some of the first organs that many plants produce and anchor them to the ground. Throughout a plant’s life, the roots are essential because they bring nutrients to above-ground organs such as leaves. Because serpentine soils have fewer plant nutrients and are drier than non-serpentine soils, Alexandria thought that plants growing in serpentine soils may not invest as much into large root systems. She predicted plants growing in serpentine soils will have smaller roots than plants growing in non-serpentine soils.

To test her ideas, she studied the effects of soil type on a serpentine-indifferent plant species called Dot-seed plantain. She purchased seeds for her experiment from a local commercial seed company. About 5 seeds were planted in serpentine or non-serpentine soils in a growth chamber where growing conditions were kept the same. After the seedlings emerged, the plants were thinned so that there was one plant per pot. The only difference in the environment was the soil type. This allowed Alexandria to attribute any differences in root length to serpentine soils. At the end of her experiment, she pulled the plants out of the soil and measured the root lengths of plants in both treatments.

Featured scientist: Alexandria Igwe (she/her) from University of Miami

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget:

The topics described in this Data Nugget are similar to the published research in the following article:

  • Igwe, A.N. and Vannette, R.L. 2019. Bacterial communities differ between plant species and soil type, and differentially influence seedling establishment on serpentine soils. Plant Soil: 441: 423-437

There is a short video of Alexandria (Allie) sharing her research on serpentine soils.

There have been several news stories and blog posts about this research:

Can biochar improve crop yields?

Buckets of pine wood biochar.

The activities are as follows:

If you walk through the lush Amazon rainforest, the huge trees may be the first thing you see. But, did you know there are wonderful things to explore on the forest floor? In special places of the Amazon, there exist incredible dark soils called “Terra Preta”. These soils are rich in nutrients that help plants grow. The main source of nutrients and dark color is from charcoal added by humans. Hundreds of years ago the indigenous people added their cooking waste, including ash from fire pits, into the ground to help their food crops grow. Today, scientists and farmers are trying out this same ancient method. When this charcoal is added to soil to help plants grow, we call it biochar.

Biochar is a pretty unique material. It is created by a special process that is similar to burning materials in a fire place, but without oxygen. Biochar can be made from many different materials. Most biochar has lots of tiny spaces, or pores, that cause it to act like a hard sponge when it is in the soil. Due to these pores, the biochar can hold more water than the soil can by itself. Along with that extra water, it also can hold nutrients. Biochar has been shown to increase crop yield in tropical places like the Amazon.

Farmers in western Colorado wanted to know what would happen if they added biochar to fields near them. Their farms experience a very different climate that is cooler and drier than the Amazon. In these drier environments, farmers are concerned about the amount of water in the soil, especially during droughts. Farmers had so many questions about how biochar works in soils that scientists at Colorado State University decided to help. One scientist, Erika, was curious if biochar could really help farms in dry Colorado. Erika thought that biochar could increase crop yield by providing pores that would hold more water in the soil that crop plants can use to grow.

Matt, a soil scientist, applying biochar to the field in a treatment plot.

To test the effects of biochar in dry agricultural environments, Erika set up an experiment at the Colorado State University Agricultural Research and Development Center. She set up plots with three different soil conditions: biochar added, manure added, and a control. She chose to include a manure treatment because it is what farmers in Colorado were currently adding to their soil when they farmed. For each treatment she had 4 replicate plots, for a total of 12 plots. She added biochar or manure to a field at the same rate (30 Megagrams/ ha or 13 tons/acre). She didn’t add anything to control plots. Erika then planted corn seeds into all 12 plots.

Erika also wanted to know if the effects of biochar would be different when water was limited compared to when it was plentiful. She set up another experimental treatment with two different irrigation levels: fullirrigationandlimitedirrigation. The full irrigation plots were watered whenever the plants needed it. The limited irrigation plots were not watered for the whole month of July, giving crops a drought period during the growing season. Erika predicted that the plots with biochar would have more water in the soil. She also thought that corn yields would be higher with biochar than in the manure and control plots. She predicted these patterns would be true under both the full and limited irrigation treatments. However, she thought that the biochar would be most beneficial when crops were given less water in the limited irrigation treatments.

To measure the water in the soil, Erika took soil samples three times: a few weeks after planting (June), the middle of the growing season (July), and just before corn harvest (September). She weighedout 10 gofmoistsoil, thendried the samples for24 hoursin an oven and weighed them again. By putting the soil in the oven, the water evaporates out and leaves just the dry soil. Sarah divided the weight of the water lost by the weight of the dry soil to calculate the percent soil moisture. At the end of the season she measured crop yield as the dry weight of the corn cobs in bushes per acre (bu/acre).

Featured scientist: Erika Foster from Colorado State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Resources to pair with this Data Nugget:

Does a partner in crime make it easier to invade?

The invasive legume plant, hairy vetch, growing in the field.

The invasive legume plant, hairy vetch, growing in the field.

The activities are as follows:

A mutualism is a relationship between two species in which both partners benefit. One example exists between legume plants (clovers and peas) and a type of bacteria, rhizobia. Rhizobia live inside bumps on the roots of legumes, called nodules. There, they convert nitrogen from the air into a form that is usable by plants; in return, plants provide the rhizobia with food and protection in the root nodule. Plants growing with rhizobia usually grow better than those growing without rhizobia.

Photo by Tomomi Suwa, 2013

Rhizobia nodules on plant roots. In exchange for carbon and protection in the nodules from plants, rhizobia provide fixed nitrogen for plants.

Mutualisms can affect what happens when a plant species is moved somewhere it hasn’t been before. Invasive plants are species that have been transported by humans from one location to another, and grow and spread quickly compared to other plants. For invasive legumes with rhizobia mutualists, there is a chance that the rhizobia will not be transported with it and the plant will have to form new relationships with rhizobia in the new location. In their introduced ranges scientists predict invasive legumes will grow better and better over time. Over generations, invasive plants and their new rhizobia partners may coevolve to become more efficient mutualism partners.

Scientists at Michigan State University tested this prediction using the invasive plant species, hairy vetch. They took soil samples containing rhizobia from three different sites with different histories of hairy vetch invasion: vetch had never been there (0 years), it arrived recently (< 3 years), and it invaded a long time ago (> 10 years). Next they grew hairy vetch plants in each of the three soil types. They then counted number of nodules on the roots (an estimate of how many rhizobia are growing with the plant) and plant biomass (how big the plants got).

Featured scientists: REU Yi Liu and Tomomi Suwa from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.5

If you are interested in performing your own classroom experiment using the plant-rhizobium mutualism, check out this paper published in the American Biology Teacher describing methods and a proposed experimental design: Suwa and Williamson 2014