Whispers in the dark - do earthworms talk to plants?

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment

Abstract

Earthworms are widely recognised as being beneficial to ecosystems. They are responsible for many of the soil processes that give rise to so called "ecosystem services", that is the things that ecosystems do and provide for humans, such as food production and recreational opportunities. One commonly observed benefit that earthworms have on ecosystems is to increase plant growth. Plants tend to grow larger and more rapidly when earthworms are in the soil. With increasing concerns about food security and sustainability anything that can increase plant productivity in a "natural" way warrants investigation.

There are a number of mechanisms by which earthworms could increase plant growth. They might alter the micro-organism population in the soil, either increasing numbers of beneficial micro-organisms or reducing numbers of detrimental ones; ingestion of seeds by earthworms may increase germination success rates; earthworm consumption and digestion of organic matter may increase nutrient availability; burrowing activity may increase the aeration of the soil or the amount of water the soil can hold. All the above mechanisms undoubtedly play a part in the way that earthworms boost plant growth. Another, less well understood mechanism by which earthworms might affect plant growth is through the production of plant growth promoting hormones.

Plants, just like animals, respond to hormones. Soil micro-organisms exploit this fact to get food. Plant roots release organic compounds into the soil; soil bacteria feed on these compounds. Other soil micro-organisms feed on the bacteria and this releases nutrients that help the plants to grow. The soil micro-organisms release plant growth promoting hormones which leads to more plant growth. This increase in plant growth leads to the release of more organic compounds by the plants into the soil and thus an increase in the amount of food available for micro-organisms.

Recently it has been suggested that earthworms might also increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds in soils. They might do this for similar reasons to the bacteria, to increase the amount of food that is available to them.

Earthworms feed on root debris and soil micro-organisms. By increasing levels of plant growth promoting compounds in the soil, earthworms could stimulate the production of more plant roots and also more soil micro-organisms feeding on the increased levels of plant secreted organic compounds that come from them. How earthworms increase the concentration of plant growth promoting compounds is not known and that is what we will seek to discover in this project.

Earthworms could release plant growth promoting hormones themselves, the hormones could be produced by bacterial populations that are boosted by earthworm activity, or the hormones could be produced by the digestion of organic matter by earthworms. Plants may also have a role, stimulating earthworms to produce the hormones. Our study will consist of a series of experiments in which we test a variety of earthworm - bacteria - plant - soil present / absent combinations to allow us to state which of the above mechanisms are important.

Our results could help lead to a change in land management practises to maximise the natural boost that earthworms give to plant growth.

Planned Impact

This project aims, for the first time, to determine whether earthworms themselves produce plant growth promoting hormones or whether the interaction between bacteria and earthworms leads to an increase in the production of these hormones. Thus, the immediate beneficiaries of this research will be the academic community as described in the "Academic beneficiaries" section and the PDRA employed on the project.

The PDRA will benefit from a variety of interdisciplinary training opportunities. Depending on their background they will develop their skills and experience of conducting experiments with soil organisms, using aseptic techniques and in carrying out mass spectrometric analyses on state-of-the-art equipment. These techniques are in demand both within academia and in industry and therefore will enhance the career prospects of the PDRA. The PDRA will also have full access to the University of York training and career development courses.

The research will be communicated at science festivals, to schools and to local interest groups (e.g. Café Scientifique, Naturalist societies) as part of the PIs continuing commitment to public outreach activities (PI Hodson currently holds a Science and Society Outreach fellowship that accounts for 20% of his time); we will also place stories in the media through the University of York Press Office upon publication of papers and the release of other significant research findings; a project webpage will be developed within the Environment department website. An immediate benefit of the research will therefore be to maintain interest in science amongst the general public including school children, who, in the PI's experience, are fascinated by all things to do with earthworms! A longer term potential benefit could result if these people are inspired to remain in science or become science-literate policy makers, managers and industrialists.

Depending on results of this project and subsequent research incorporating metagenomic anaysis, in the longer term there is the potential for the agricultural sector (both commercial and government advisory) to benefit from this research through an enhanced knowledge of how soil organisms can have a beneficial impact on plant productivity. Enhancement of earthworm populations to increase biomass production may be a useful tool in the drive towards sustainable agricultural methods. Similarly, domestic gardeners. allotment owners, etc. may benefit from a better understanding of how to increase crop yields in a sustainable way without the use of agrochemicals. In addition to the scientific literature (agricultural sector) and the popular media (agricultural sector, domestic gardeners) we will use the policy and press officers of such organisations as the British Society for Soil Science and the British Ecological Society to raise awareness of our findings in these sectors. We will also discuss our work with Professor Rob Edwards who is a joint appointment between the University of York Department of Biology and FERA where he is chief scientist.

The above will be done in house and using existing funds.

Publications

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Description We have discovered that the presence of earthworms alters the concentration of plant growth hormones we detect in earthworm-plant systems vs plant systems though we don't know whether the earthworms are producing these (seems unlikely on the basis of genetic information we have gathered), the plants are producing them (we have some evidence of upregulation of stress indicator genes in the plants) or if they are being produced by bacteria.
Exploitation Route We have found that earthworms and plants do interact at some sort of chemical / molecular level. Further information on this could be developed to understand how earthworms and plants interact, probably the best way to do this would be looking at a genetic level.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment