Investigating Structure and Function of Rhizosphere Associated Microbial Communities in Natural and Managed Plant Systems
Rodrigues, Richard Rosario
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Many plants, especially grasses, have Nitrogen (N) as their growth-limiting nutrient. Large amounts of N fertilizer (>100 kg N ha-1) are used in managed systems to maximize crop productivity. However, the plant captures less than 50% of the (~12 million tons per year, U.S.) applied N-fertilizer. The remaining mobile N lost through leaching and denitrification accumulates in waterways and the atmosphere, respectively. Losses of fertilizers create environmental and economic concerns globally and create conditions that support the invasion of exotic plants in the natural landscapes. There is thus a need to come up with biological solutions to better manage nitrogen for plant growth and ecosystem sustainability. Microbial communities in the rhizosphere are known to potentially have beneficial effects on plant growth. Diazotrophs, for example, are bacteria that can convert the atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, a process called 'nitrogen fixation.' Utilizing the natural process of associative nitrogen fixation to support most of the plant's N needs would substantially reduce fertilizer use and thus reduce production and environmental costs. The goal of this dissertation was to determine the structure and function of root-zone microbial communities for increasing productivity of native plants. Towards this end, we study the root-zone bacterial and fungal communities of native and exotic invasive plants. This study identifies that shifts in rhizosphere microbial communities are associated with invasion and highlights the importance of rhizosphere associated structure and function of microbes. A study of root-zone associated microbes in switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) - a U.S. native, warm-season, perennial, bioenergy crop indicates that high biomass yield and taller growth are associated with increased plant N-demand and supportive of bacteria with greater rates of N2-fixation in the rhizosphere. Another crucial outcome of the thesis is a better description of the core and cultivar-specific taxa that comprise the switchgrass root-zone associated microbiome. The work in this dissertation has brought us closer to designing N supply strategies by utilizing the natural microbial communities to balance the N-cycle in agroecosystems and support a sustainable environment.
- Doctoral Dissertations