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Soil microbes survive the desert by 'sleeping' through the dry spells

Soil microbes face extreme challenges for survival in desert environments, which are characterized by prolonged drought and scarce rainfall. Despite these harsh conditions, an invisible world thrives below the surface.

The microbes reside in the desert’s biocrust – the uppermost layer of soil. They play a crucial role in enriching the soil with essential nutrients like carbon and nitrogen.

Additionally, they help prevent erosion and retain moisture, contributing significantly to ecosystem health. Yet, the survival strategies of soil microbes in such a punishing environment have long baffled scientists.

From dormancy to dynamism

A recent study has shed light on how these resilient microorganisms manage to survive and even thrive under extreme conditions. Dagmar Woebken and her team in the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

The experts found that desert soil microbes are uniquely adapted to swiftly respond to the infrequent moisture provided by rainfall. The bacteria enter a dormant state during dry periods, springing to life almost immediately following a rainfall event. This fascinating phenomenon was closely studied in the biocrusts of the Negev Desert, Israel.

The researchers discovered that within a very short time frame after rain – sometimes as little as 15 to 30 minutes – nearly all of the diverse microbial life present in the soil transitions from dormancy. They quickly reach full activity. This rapid shift is not commonly seen in other soil types, where bacteria reactivation takes significantly longer.

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