Microbial nursery production of high-quality biological soil crust biomass for restoration of degraded dryland soils

Sergio Velasco Ayuso, Ana Giraldo Silva, Corey Nelson, Nichole N. Barger, Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are slow-growing, phototroph-based microbial assemblages that develop on the topsoils of drylands. Biocrusts help maintain soil fertility and reduce erosion. Because their loss through human activities has negative ecological and environmental health consequences, biocrust restoration is of interest. Active soil inoculation with biocrust microorganisms can be an important tool in this endeavor. We present a culture-independent, two-step process to grow multispecies biocrusts in open greenhouse nursery facilities, based on the inoculation of local soils with local biocrust remnants and incubation under seminatural conditions that maintain the essence of the habitat but lessen its harshness. In each of four U.S. Southwest sites, we tested and deployed combinations of factors that maximized growth (gauged as chlorophyll a content) while minimizing microbial community shifts (assessed by 16S rRNA sequencing and bioinformatics), particularly for crust-forming cyanobacteria. Generally, doubling the frequency of natural wetting events, a 60% reduction in sunlight, and inoculation by slurry were optimal. Nutrient addition effects were site specific. In 4 months, our approach yielded crusts of high inoculum quality reared on local soil exposed to locally matched climates, acclimated to desiccation, and containing communities minimally shifted in composition from local ones. Our inoculum contained abundant crust-forming cyanobacteria and no significant numbers of allochthonous phototrophs, and it was sufficient to treat ca. 6,000 m2 of degraded dryland soils at 1 to 5% of the typical crust biomass concentration, having started from a natural crust remnant as small as 6 to 30 cm2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02179-16
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017


  • 16S rRNA
  • Biological soil crusts
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Degraded soils
  • Drylands
  • Erosion control
  • Soil microbiome
  • Soil restoration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Biotechnology
  • Ecology


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