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Drying soils pose a major threat to public health

Drying soils will likely host an increasing number of pathogenic microbes which pose a threat to public health, according to a new study. The research will be presented at the 107th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Previous studies have shown that soil microbes are vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change. Soil bacterial communities are crucial for fertile soils and plant growth, and the expected loss of microbial diversity in drying soils could have severe consequences when it comes to global food security.

The new research reveals that soil-borne pathogens are resilient to stressful environmental conditions. This means that disease-causing bacteria are more likely than non-pathogenic microbes to survive the persistent droughts that are expected to coincide with climate change and global warming. 

A team of researchers at New Mexico State University led by Professor Adriana Romero-Olivares investigated the complex relationships between global change and soil fungi. The study was focused on soil fungal communities in the southwestern United States.

In collaboration with experts at ETH Zürich and the U.S. Geological Survey, the researchers extracted fungal DNA from soils to compare the effects of local environmental conditions on microbial communities.

The results suggest that spore-producing fungi will thrive and become more prevalent in increasingly dry soils. Pathogenic fungi release spores that spread easily through airborne dispersal, and these species may be able to endure dust storms and droughts that non-pathogenic species are unable to tolerate, explained the study authors.

“It’s not only about the fungi that we know are pathogenic, but also about the fungi that have the potential to become pathogenic. We have no idea if global climate change may trigger pathogenicity and we really need to start looking into that to prevent future pandemics,” said Romero-Olivares.

The research will be used to inform policy makers on the public health threat potential that climate change has on soil fungal communities.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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