Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi: crop management systems alter community structure and affect soybean growth and tolerance to water stress
Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) are best known for their potential to help plants acquire nutrients, especially phosphorous. These microbes improve soil health by promoting soil aggregation and carbon sequestration, and further benefit plants by helping them withstand biotic and abiotic stress. Currently, there are 200 recognized species of AMF within the phylum Glomeromycota. Recent studies indicate that individual AMF species differ in the benefits they provide, with some even acting as parasites. Moreover, AMF community composition can be altered by soil and crop management practices, but the effect of these changes on the benefits conferred by AMF are still not well understood. Consequently, the goal of this study was to determine how two widely used crop management systems can alter the composition of AMF species, and affect the potential for these communities to promote the productivity and drought tolerance. To accomplish this goal, we collected AMF inoculum from a long-term crop systems trial comparing organic and conventional management for use in greenhouse trials where we subjected plants to drought. We collected AMF inoculum during mid-summer when differences between the two management systems were likely cause larger effects on AMF communities, and again in autumn after harvest to see if differences in AMF communities would persist. We determined AMF species composition using next generation sequencing. Results of this study confirm that soil-building practices commonly used in organic farming systems can improve soil health and increase the productivity of food-grade soybeans. They also demonstrate that AMF communities in Indiana croplands are highly diverse, and some of these taxa can improve soybean growth and help plants tolerate water stress. Although the overall diversity of AMF communities did not differ between the organic and conventional management systems in mid-summer, individual AMF taxa did differ between the systems, which were likely responsible for the greater tolerance to water stress observed when plants were amended with inoculum from the organic system. AMF communities present during autumn were significantly different between the two crop management systems, but did not result in differences in drought tolerance of soybeans, indicating that the loss of key AMF taxa in the organic system from the first relative to the second experiment was likely responsible. Finally, plants grown using inoculum from both crop management systems in autumn had greater tolerance to water stress than plants that received a AMF commercial inoculum. This provides further evidence that individual AMF species vary in the benefits they provide, and that the presence of a diverse consortium of AMF species is needed to optimize plant health and productivity in agricultural systems. Agricultural producers should consider incorporating soil-building practices that are commonly used in organic farming systems such as planting winter cover crops, to improve the health of their soil and enhance the productivity of their crops.