We're researching the ecology and evolution of soil microbes in threatened woodlands of temperate agricultural landscapes to improve our ability to manage and restore native vegetation.

The challenge

Understanding the role of soil microbes in changing ecosystems

Soil microbes play an essential role in supporting plant growth, so a better understanding of soil microbes is critical to creating, restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, especially in the face of environmental change. 

We currently have little understanding of how soils and their resident microbes are affected by land use or climate change, including a lack of knowledge on the basic ecology and habits of soil microbes. These represent major knowledge gaps in our ability to design and implement restoration management strategies to help preserve Australia’s unique biological heritage.

Our response

Characterising responses of soil microbes to environmental change

We're undertaking research in woodlands of temperate agricultural landscapes to understand how symbiotic soil microbial communities are affected by land use, and how individual microbe species might adapt to climate change.

Because woodlands occur on agriculturally productive soil, many southern Australian woodlands have been cleared. The remainder face multiple environmental pressures including grazing by livestock, nutrient enrichment and climate change.

The results

Untangling the genetics of how soil microbes adapt

Using next-generation sequencing technologies, we are discovering patterns in the DNA of naturally occurring bacteria genomes across wide climate gradients, to help understand how they might adapt to climate change. 

These bacteria are essential for the growth and survival of an Australian endemic legume, Acacia acuminata (jam), a dominant tree in eucalypt–acacia woodlands of the south-western Australian wheatbelt.

A jam–sandalwood plantation in the Western Australian wheatbelt.  ©CSIRO, Suzanne Prober

Acacia acuminata is widely planted for revegetation and as a host species in commercial plantations of Australian sandalwood, Santalum spicatum. Sandalwood is a valuable species grown for its aromatic wood. It is a parasitic plant so is widely planted together with host Acacia species like jam, which in turn are dependent on symbiotic soil microbes.

By gaining a better understanding of how Acacia-associated symbiotic soil microbes respond to variable environments, we aim to learn how to improve the resilience of such plantings to changing environments.

Our studies are also showing that symbiotic soil fungi known as arbuscular mycorrhizas are dramatically altered by these changes, which in turn could affect restoration success.

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