Optimizing the production of nursery-based biological soil crusts for restoration of arid land soils

Julie Bethany, Ana Giraldo-Silva, Corey Nelson, Nichole N. Barger, Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are topsoil communities formed by cyanobacteria or other microbial primary producers and are typical of arid and semiarid environments. Biocrusts promote a range of ecosystem services, such as erosion resistance and soil fertility, but their degradation by often anthropogenic disturbance brings about the loss of these services. This has prompted interest in developing restoration techniques. One approach is to source biocrust remnants from the area of interest for scale-up cultivation in a microbial "nursery" that produces large quantities of high-quality inoculum for field deployment. However, growth dynamics and the ability to reuse the produced inoculum for continued production have not been assessed. To optimize production, we followed nursery growth dynamics of biocrusts from cold (Great Basin) and hot (Chihuahuan) deserts. Peak phototrophic biomass was attained between 3 and 7 weeks in cold desert biocrusts and at 12 weeks in those from hot deserts. We also reused the resultant biocrust inoculum to seed successive incubations, tracking both phototroph biomass and cyanobacterial community structure using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing. Hot desert biocrusts showed little to no viability upon reinoculation, while cold desert biocrusts continued to grow, but at the expense of progressive shifts in species composition. This leads us to discourage the reuse of nursery-grown inoculum. Surprisingly, growth was highly variable among replicates, and overall yields were low, a fact that we attribute to the demonstrable presence of virulent and stochastically distributed but hitherto unknown cyanobacterial pathogens. We provide recommendations to avoid pathogen incidence in the process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00735-19
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number15
StatePublished - 2019


  • 16S rRNA
  • Biocrust
  • Biocrust restoration
  • Biological soil crust
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Degraded soils
  • Drylands
  • Erosion control
  • Restoration
  • Soil microbiome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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