Can root fungi help farmers store more organic carbon?

Yvonne Chang, an assistant researcher at the CSIRO Cotton Resarch Unit in Narrabri, NSW, received a Cotton CRDC-funded Science and Innovation Award in March 2016 for her work into improving soil organic carbon levels in cotton crops.
Yvonne Chang, an assistant researcher at the CSIRO Cotton Resarch Unit in Narrabri, NSW, received a Cotton CRDC-funded Science and Innovation Award in March 2016 for her work into improving soil organic carbon levels in cotton crops.
Melanie Jenson

Soil organic carbon performs important functions in soils, enhancing soil structure and boosting productivity. However, methods currently used to improve longterm levels of soil organic carbon (SOC) in depleted soils have produced inconsistent outcomes, thanks largely to the variability in rates of microbial activity on SOC.

In a bid to find a method that works reliably to improve soil carbon levels in cotton crops, CSIRO Cotton Research http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/AF/Areas/Plant-Science/CottonAssistant Yvonne Chang has been exploring whether certain species of fungi associated with cotton plant roots can be used to help store organic carbon in the soil for longer periods.

Chang, who has a degree in Science from The University of Sydney, received recognition and encouragement for her SOC work when she won the Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) award at the 2016 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in March.

CRDC Executive Director Bruce Finney congratulated Chang on winning this year’s cotton industry-funded Award.

“Yvonne was selected as the recipient of the cotton Science and Innovation Award from a very strong field of young researchers, and we congratulate her on her success,” he said.

“Yvonne is already contributing to cotton RD&E: in her current role with CSIRO, she works as part of the team that is looking at nitrogen losses from irrigated cotton.

“Her research project has the potential to make a real, tangible contribution to the field of cotton research, and help growers improve their productivity and sustainability,” Finney said.

Yvonne Chang receiving her Science and Innovation Award from Barnaby Joyce and and ABARES Chief Scientist, Dr Kim Ritman.
Yvonne Chang receiving her Science and Innovation Award from Barnaby Joyce and and ABARES Chief Scientist, Dr Kim Ritman.
Steve Keough Photography

What’s the gist of Chang’s research?

“Essentially, my project looks at three things: improving the soil, increasing cotton yields and reducing the impact of greenhouse gases,” Chang says.

The amount of carbon in agricultural soils has been depleted by decades of intensive cultivation, she explains. “Soil carbon's been linked to a lot of really important functions, including increased plant productivity, improving soil structure and similar things.

“Current practices we've been using to try and manage carbon loss, like adding different forms of plant matter or compost, have given mixed results... there’s nothing really consistent across the board,” says Chang.

The CRDC-funded bursary of $22,000 will help Chang to further her investigations in the field. “The award will allow me to undertake a glasshouse or field project to examine the effect of this fungi on soil organic carbon under irrigated cotton,” she explains.

“If the result is a significant increase in soil organic carbon, then this could help to address the longstanding issue of declining carbon in soil and, as a result, enable increased production and sustainability for cotton growers.”

Cotton crop: CSIRO research assistant Yvonne Chang has won a Science and Innovation Award for her work on using cotton-plant root fungi as a way of improving soil organic carbon levels longterm..
Cotton crop: CSIRO research assistant Yvonne Chang has won a Science and Innovation Award for her work on using cotton-plant root fungi as a way of improving soil organic carbon levels longterm..
Mike Beauregard, Flickr CC

The wider benefits

If Chang’s research efforts prove fruitful, the benefits to the environment and agriculture extend beyond replenishing depleted soil.

A better way of storing organic carbon in the soils used to grow cotton would enable cotton farmers to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) from their operations significantly, at the same time making them eligible to participate in the Australian Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative.

If successful, Chang’s research could apply to other crops as well.

“The fungus that we’re using form specific interactions with different plant species so we might not necessarily be able to use the same fungal isolate for all plant species, but we'll try and see what happens,” she asserts.

Chang has always been interested in how the world works and is passionate about understanding soil processes.

“It’s really fascinating that the plants form interactions with various soil microbes,” she says.

“It’s exciting to think that when we understand how things work better, we might be able to improve the way we do things in agriculture and increase how sustainable it is in the long term.”

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