Western Australia’s Soil Microbiome: Out of Sight and Out of Mind

Shashi Sharma

Western Australia has over the years made several good policies, plans, and investment decisions regarding the conservation of natural environment and biodiversity. One such recent decision included plans to end native forestry logging. From 2024, timber taken from native forests will be limited to forest management activities that improve forest health. The state government has even considered a 100-year biodiversity conservation strategy. However, there is a glaring omission in all the plans, policies, and strategies, and that is the lack of consideration of investment decisions regarding ‘soil microbiome’ in Western Australia. In simple terms, a microbiome is the community of microbes living together in a particular habitat such as plants, animals, humans, soil, etc. Recent studies have revealed the vital importance of the human gut microbiome in the management of human health.

It is estimated that human microbiome has over 100 trillion of microbes that influence our health and many other functions. We have more microbial genes than human genes in our body! Human microbiome has emerged as a topical area of medical research worldwide with billions of dollars of investment for describing the microbiome and analysing its role in human health and disease.

Similarly, soil, a vital natural resource, has its own microbiome. The soil microbiome includes communities of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists and viruses even a gram of soil may contain about 50,000 species and millions of microbes. The soil microbiome is vital for many ecosystem services that benefit plants and animals including humans. These services include making available key plant growth nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to plants, regulating the flow of greenhouse gases, decomposition of organic matter, protection of plants from biotic and abiotic stresses, decontamination of soils through bioremediation, maintaining the physical structure of soil, and biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and other elements vital for the growth of plants and animal life. Soils store approximately three times the total amount of carbon found in vegetation and twice the amount found in the atmosphere.

Knowledge of soil microbiome of different ecosystems in the state has the potential to help deliver solutions to some of the significant challenges that we face from climate change to environmental degradation. There is a basic need for the state to have reliable knowledge of soil microbiome of different natural and managed ecosystems. This knowledge will not only provide the basis for conservation planning and action, but it will also help in investment decisions on research and safeguarding of soil microbiome of forests and agricultural regions at a state level. Studies on soil microbiome will be crucial in the context of regenerative agriculture. Investment in soil microbiome initiative will have long-term benefits for the environment and community that will reach across generations. Soil microbiome remains out of sight, and it is our responsibility as a community organisation to ensure that it no longer remains out of minds of the policy planners and decision makers. 

Shashi Sharma