Artificial Soils Reveal Individual Factor Controls on Microbial Processes
Del Valle, Ilenne; Gao, Xiaodong; Ghezzehei, Teamrat A.; Silberg, Jonathan J.; Masiello, Caroline A.
Soil matrix properties influence microbial behaviors that underlie nutrient cycling, greenhouse gas production, and soil formation. However, the dynamic and heterogeneous nature of soils makes it challenging to untangle the effects of different matrix properties on microbial behaviors. To address this challenge, we developed a tunable artificial soil recipe and used these materials to study the abiotic mechanisms driving soil microbial growth and communication. When we used standardized matrices with varying textures to culture gas-reporting biosensors, we found that a Gram-negative bacterium (Escherichia coli) grew best in synthetic silt soils, remaining active over a wide range of soil matric potentials, while a Gram-positive bacterium (Bacillus subtilis) preferred sandy soils, sporulating at low water potentials. Soil texture, mineralogy, and alkalinity all attenuated the bioavailability of an acyl-homoserine lactone (AHL) signaling molecule that controls community-level microbial behaviors. Texture controlled the timing of AHL sensing, while AHL bioavailability was decreased ~105-fold by mineralogy and ~103-fold by alkalinity. Finally, we built artificial soils with a range of complexities that converge on the properties of one Mollisol. As artificial soil complexity increased to more closely resemble the Mollisol, microbial behaviors approached those occurring in the natural soil, with the notable exception of organic matter.