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Rhizosphere Ecology and Soil Health

Deciphering the complexity of rhizosphere processes is emerging as a new research frontier in terrestrial ecology. At a global scale, rhizosphere processes may control as much as 50% of the total CO2 released from terrestrial ecosystems and modulate virtually all aspects of nutrient cycling. As recently recognized, many regulating mechanisms in the rhizosphere (e.g., mycorrhizal networks, rhizosphere priming, messaging in plant-plant and plant-microbe interactions) have the potential to influence energy fluxes and material cycling in terrestrial ecosystems from the micro-meter scale to the Earth-system scale. Furthermore, the majority of currently recognized rhizosphere processes form crucial feedback linkages with global environmental change drivers (e.g., increasing CO2 concentration, nitrogen deposition, and surface warming). Such a new frontier yields numerous research opportunities and warrants extensive research.

The Institute is fostering a new research direction of studying the structure and function of rhizospheric organisms in the context of soil health and ecosystem functions. This new program will include studies on spatial and temporal distribution patterns of rhizospheric biota along precipitation, temperature, altitudinal and disturbance gradients; the role of rhizospheric biota in regulating biogeochemical cycles in terrestrial ecosystems; the response and adaptation of rhizospheric biota to global environmental change; the maintenance of soil biodiversity and the interactions of macro-, meso-, and micro-organisms in below-ground foodwebs; and the linkages between above- and below-ground processes in the context of global climate and land use changes.

The Institute has the “critical mass” of scientists for developing this research direction. Currently five research groups in the Institute are focusing on below-ground ecology and have established research platforms in this area. These groups are: the Below-ground Ecological Processes Group, the Nutrient Cycling Group, the Soil Ecology Group, the Ecological Stoichiometry Group, and the Biogeochemistry Group. There are 8 senior scientists, 6 associated scientists, and 12 assistant scientists within these five groups. Among the 9 senior scientists, five are research leaders ¾ one is Chief Scientist for a National “973” Project; two are nationally endowed “One Thousand Plan” Scientists; and two are CAS-endowed “One Hundred Talents Plan” Scientists. Some ongoing projects within these groups are focusing primarily on key subjects in rhizosphere ecology and soil processes (e.g., rhizospheric priming effect, soil microbial residues, soil foodwebs, soil microbial diversity, and effects of plant-soil interactions on nitrogen cycling). Further collaboration among these groups will contribute substantially to this new research frontier.

This work is also built upon the existing and future facilities of the Institute. The Analytical Center of the Institute houses state-of-the-art facilities for analytical chemistry, environmental chemistry, biological chemistry and microbiology. The Center has recently been equipped with new mass-spectrometry systems (analytical mass spectrometry, ratio mass spectrometry, and laser isotope analyzers) and other new equipment. The Nutrient Cycling Group is housed in an internationally recognized facility for analyzing soil microbial metabolites and residues. The Below-ground Ecological Processes Group has established a new Picarro 13C analyzing system for rhizosphere research. The Ecological Stoichiometry Group has begun to utilize high output pyrosequencing and metagenomic methods for studying soil microbial diversity. The Biogeochemistry Group has a Picarro system for analyzing 13C in ambient air samples. The State Key Laboratory of Forest and Soil Ecology has built-in support for acquisition and development of new equipment and facilities for this new research direction.

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