In the wake of the climate crisis over the last decades, we all talk about the state of the air we breathe and the quality of our water; both undoubtedly invaluable and essential to all life forms. However, we very often forget another key player; the part of Earth right under our feet, the soil. This complex matrix of minerals, water, air and organic matter is the basis of robust and sustainable ecosystems. Soils provide structure, support and nutrition for all life forms and are the keystones of agriculture. Our lives depend daily on the endless exchange cycles of elements between water, air and soil. Working tirelessly in these exchange cycles is an immense number of microorganisms; the hidden soil heroes. Microbes that constantly recycle organic substances and elements, break down toxic chemicals, and also produce chemicals that help plant growth supporting our food chain by doing so.
Sadly, our soils and especially agricultural soils are overworked and are under stress worldwide. Soil corrosion, acidification, salinization, toxification, and general poor soil management, just to mention a few, all lead eventually to imbalances in the soil cycles. These imbalances have a potentially disastrous effect on the soil composition and microbiology over time, and by extension are unfavorable to crop yield and crop nutritional value. The effects extend to livestock as well, since cereals and legumes, are integral components of animal nutrition.
In order to gain a better understanding of the local soil quality status and changes over time, the concept of the National Soil Banks has slowly developed. The general goal is to create, first of all, a repository of samples of soil, collected locally and preserved indefinitely. Preservation is essential in order to have access to the soil content unaltered over time. Once the repository is established, a reliable assessment of the physical, chemical, and microbiological qualities of different soil samples over time is enabled, and the information is accessible to local and international researchers, farmers and policy-makers.
After years of preparation, the first National Soil Bank in Cyprus is now a reality. In a small island country with just over 15% of its total land usage as ‘agricultural land’, and harsh environmental conditions due to climate change, it is of outmost importance to preserve and study soil characteristics. The project that supports the soil bank infrastructure, called MAGNET (environmental microbioloGy aNd BiotEchnology CenTer) is a joint venture of the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI-Cyprus), The Cyprus Institute, the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics (CING) and international collaborators from the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment of France (INRAe-France).
The MAGNET project calls for soil collection from several thousand defined locations spread all over Cyprus. The soil samples are tagged, processed, analyzed and stored frozen at -40 °C. Furthermore, genetic material (DNA) is extracted from all soil samples and similarly stored at -86 °C thus creating a sub-unit of the Soil Bank - the Genetic Resource Bank. Considering the critical value of soil microorganisms, and specifically bacteria, MAGNET focuses on preserving and analyzing soil bacterial diversity in addition to soil physicochemical characteristics. By using the Genetic Resource Bank, researchers can identify and monitor the bacterial ‘key players’ in different soils over time and different ecosystems. In addition, bacteria that are beneficial to plants will be isolated from soil, and eventually stored in the MAGNET Microbial Bank, based on their plant-promoting functions. Such functions include more specifically, the solubilization of potassium and phosphorus, the atmospheric nitrogen fixation, and siderophore and plant hormone production, all of which can be used to optimize and promote crop yield.
The vision of the MAGNET research consortium is to be ultimately able to use the soil, microbial and genetic information collected from the Cyprus soils to build a research database that supports field and biotechnological applications for soil bioremediation and rejuvenation, and optimum crop yield under stress conditions in a continuously changing climate, locally but also worldwide.
Dr. Urania Michaelidou
Research Member Group
ARI Research Team in MAGNET
Dr Ioannis M. Ioannides, Dr Damianos Neocleous, Dr Michalis Omirou (Coordinator), Dr Dionysia Fasoula, Dr Panagiotis Dalias, Dr Urania Michaelidou, Dr Christiana Hadjimichael
“MAGNET (INFRASTRUCTURES/1216/0032) is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and the Republic of Cyprus through the Research and Innovation Foundation”