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Below the Surface

September 16, 2020
person in sagebrush
As part of the Wyoming EPSCoR Microbial Ecology Collaborative, Assistant Professor Linda van Diepen collects soil at one of the 50 sagebrush sites across a climate gradient in Wyoming. Collected soil samples will be analyzed for various microbial, chemical and physical parameters to better understand the driving factors influencing the microbial communities associated with sagebrush ecosystems.

From weeds to invasive species, soil microbiomes can play an important role in the health of grasslands and farmlands.


By Micaela Myers


We often look above the surface at the thriving vineyards that make our wine or the fields of grain produced to make our bread. But nothing we eat or drink would be possible without healthy soils.

Among the factors affecting those soils are weeds and invasive species, which cost farmers and ranchers billions each year. What makes these weeds or invasive species take over in certain areas and not others? What does the application of herbicides do to the important microbes in the soil? These are some of the questions UW Department of Ecosystem Science and Management Assistant Professor Linda van Diepen and her students are studying as part of the Microbial Ecology Collaborative, which is funded by EPSCoR (Wyoming Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Wyoming EPSCoR’s grant is one of the largest at the University of Wyoming, and the main grant focuses on studying microbiomes across the state to help predict how different regions respond to environmental disturbances. Microbiomes are made of the microorganisms in a particular environment. These organisms play essential roles in cycling nutrients, decomposing organic matter, plant performance and determining the fate of pollutants released by human activities.

Van Diepen and her team are studying both a grassland area and a corn field. They are looking at what role soil microbes play in weed invasion and how herbicides affect the microbial community. Early results of the agricultural corn field show that herbicide application changes the function of the soil microbial community for a short time, but that it returns to normal after about 20 days.

“It seems that the microbial community is functionally fairly resilient to that application, but it remains to be seen if the microbial species composition will also show that resilience,” van Diepen says. Results for the grassland area are still being analyzed.

“The direction we’d like to go into is looking at the cheatgrass invasion, which is a large problem across the western U.S., including Wyoming,” van Diepen says. “That’s a project that will be done with a larger network—BromeCast, another NSF-sponsored research project led by Peter Adler (Utah State University) and Matthew Germino (U.S. Geological Survey) and additional researchers from various universities and government agencies across the western U.S.—trying to understand why cheatgrass invades certain systems and not others.”

Other UW researchers involved in the network are Kevin Wilcox and Kristina Hufford from the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management and Topher Weiss-Lehman from the Department of Botany.

The larger BromeCast network project will involve seeding cheatgrass in set areas and monitoring the vegetation for cheatgrass performance, as well as taking soil samples before, during and after. “We’d take soil samples before we seed the cheatgrass to understand the microbial communities and chemical and physical properties of those soils then measure those same properties throughout,” van Diepen says.

This research will allow them to see what soil factors make the cheatgrass more or less successful at taking over—and if there is a specific role played by the soil microbiome. 

“Understanding which factors are important in the establishment of cheatgrass will help in finding ways to combat invasion or restore sites after invasion, such as making cheatgrass less invasive,” van Diepen says. “The cattle and beef industry could potentially benefit from that study.”

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