Article image

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.

A closer look at desert soil microbes

The researchers used advanced techniques involving stable isotope-labeled water, which contains a form of heavy hydrogen, to simulate rainfall events. By using NanoSIMS, a sophisticated imaging technology, they were able to observe how individual cells responded to simulated rainfall.

The method allowed the researchers to identify which cells were reactivating and assess their growth potential during these brief periods of moisture.

Interestingly, while almost all of the biocrust cells reactivated quickly, only a minority were capable of cell division. This occurred within the short span of rain, typically lasting just one to two days. The majority of cells focused on regeneration, preparing themselves for the next dry spell rather than dividing.

“These data help us understand how biocrust bacteria make optimal use of the short activity windows they experience in deserts. They are ideally adapted to withstand short-term changes in soil water content, a very stressful situation for the cells. This allows them to survive the sudden increase in water content during rain, as well as the subsequent drying out,” noted Dagmar Woebken, principal investigator of the study.

“Additionally, the diverse microbial community is capable of immediate reactivation, which is of great benefit when it must return to a dormant state within a few hours to days.”

Broader ecological insights

The insights gained deepen our understanding of desert microbial life and have broader ecosystem implications.

Furthermore, as global droughts become more frequent and intense due to climate change, understanding microorganism responses to water scarcity is crucial.

The desert-adapted strategies of soil microbes showcase resilience and adaptability, providing valuable lessons for managing soil health in other vulnerable areas.

Why are desert soil microbes important?

Desert soil microbes play a vital role in decomposing organic matter, which is scarce in deserts. This decomposition releases nutrients back into the soil, making them available to plants. Microbes such as bacteria and fungi are particularly crucial in the nitrogen cycle, converting atmospheric nitrogen into forms that plants can absorb and use.

Microbes also help to maintain and improve soil structure. Their activity helps bind soil particles together, which improves soil’s ability to retain water and resist erosion, a critical function in arid environments where water is limited and soil erosion can be a severe problem.

Many desert plants rely on symbiotic relationships with microbes to survive in such extreme conditions. For example, mycorrhizal fungi colonize plant roots and extend far into the soil, increasing a plant’s reach for water and essential nutrients, which is particularly important in nutrient-poor desert soils.

Furthermore, desert microbes sequester carbon in the soil, contributing to the mitigation of climate change. Their ability to survive in extreme conditions also provides insights into resilience strategies that could be useful in managing ecological responses to climate change.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day