Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hypography Science Forum Upgrades Terra Preta Discussion

The Hypography Science Forum has upgraded the terra preta discussion from a long, 43 page thread to a forum, with separate threads for charcoal making, gardening experiences, news, etc. The new location is here.

A recent message posted to the forum, from Janice Thies, Cornell University, is most interesting:

I am extremely heartened by the very positive response to the idea of using of biochar in agriculture and horticulture and appreciate your desires to put it to immediate beneficial use in these systems.

My name is Janice Thies. I am a soil microbial ecologist. I have been working with Johannes Lehmann at Cornell University for the past 6 years on various aspects of terra preta (microbial ecology in its natural state) and agrichar (how microbial populations respond to adding biochar to soil). It took us three years to convince the National Science Foundation that we were on to something here and to obtain funding for some of the basic research that is necessary for us to provide the data needed to answer your questions with confidence. Hence, we are several years behind where we could have been if funding had been available earlier. Even now, we continue to seek support for doing the types of tests many of you are most interested in. The results of our NSF funded research are just now being published or written up, but we are still a long way from being able to answer everything.

Currently, there are 10 research laboratories around the world that are testing char made from bamboo that was prepared at 5 different temperatures in the range we believe is likely to provide char that will be most beneficial for both plant production and C sequestration purposes. Rob Flannigan prepared the char in China and has engaged us all to do a wide range of testing on it. So, we should have some news about what temperature range might be best reasonably soon, but it is still early days.
Bio-char amended plots respond more favorably if adequate nitrogen fertilizer is provided. This is consistent with a previous observation here that added nitrogen is desirable when increasing soil microbial biomass.

One of the reasons that Dr. Lehmann recommends caution in the use of biochar can be seen in the paper recently published by Christoph Steiner et al., mentioned in previous messages. He did get excellent plant growth responses to adding biochar - as long as mineral fertilizer was also used. When you look at plant growth in the biochar only treatment, growth was worse than doing nothing at all (check plots). In the nutrient-poor and highly leached soils of the tropics, the added biochar likely bound whatever nutrients were present in the soil solution and these became unavailable for plant uptake. These results should make you cautious as well. How fertile a soil needs to be for biochar not to reduce plant growth or exactly how much fertilizer and/or compost should be added to be sure there is good, sustained release of nutrients, will likely vary soil to soil and we simply do not have these data available at present to make proper recommendations. So, keep this in mind as you do your own trials with your own soils or mixes. Try to follow good design practices for your trials, with replicates, so that you can judge for yourself what amount and type of biochar works best in combination with what amounts and types of fertilizers or composts you use (depending on the philosophy behind your cultural practices).
The soil microbial community in terra preta is different from that of surrounding soils, yet is repeatable over great distances. Actinomycetes bacteria seem to have a particular affinity for terra preta.

As to the 'wee beasties' or 'critters' as I like to call them, we have made progress on this front over the last several years. Brendan O'Neill and Julie Grossman in my laboratory, Sui Mai Tsai, our Brazilian collaborator at CENA and the University of Sao Paulo, and Biqing Liang, and many others in Johannes Lehmann's laboratory have been characterizing microbial populations in three different terra preta soils and comparing these to the adjacent, unmodified soils near by to them. Brendan found that populations of culturable bacteria and fungi are higher in the terra preta soils, as compared to the unmodified soils, in all cases. Yet, Biqing found that the respiratory activity of these populations is lower (see Liang et al., 2006), even when fresh organic matter is added. This alone means that the turnover of organic matter is slower in the terra preta soils - suggesting that the presence of black C in the terra pretas is helping to stabilize labile organic matter and is itself not turning over in the short term. All good news for C sequestration. However, since the respiratory activity is lower (slower decomposition), this may lead to slower release of other mineral nutrient associated with the fresh organic inputs. In some circumstances this is a good thing (maintaining nutrient release over the growing season), in other circumstances (more immobilization), perhaps not. We need more work on this to understand the implications of these results more fully.

Julie Grossman, Brendan O'Neill, Lauren McPhillips and Dr. Tsai have all been working on the molecular ecology of these soils along with me. So far, what we know is that both bacterial and fungal communities differ strongly between the terra pretas and the unmodified soils, but that the populations are similar between the terra preta soils. These results are both interesting and encouraging. First, that the terra preta soils (sampled from sites many kilometers apart) are more similar to each other than to their closest unmodified soil (sampled within 500 m) tells us that the conditions in the terra pretas encourage the colonization of these soils by similar groups of organisms that are adapted them. Our group has been working on cloning and sequencing both isolates from the terra preta soils and DNA extracted directly from them. A number of bacteria that were isolated only from the terra preta soils are related to the actinomycetes, but have not yet been described yet and are not very closely related to other sequences of known organisms in the public genetic databases. This is also very interesting. Some of you will know that actinomycetes have many unusual metabolic capabilities and can degrade a very wide range of substrates. Also, many are thermophilic and play important roles in the composting process. We have yet to fully characterize these organisms, but are optimistic that in time we can make some recommendations about what organisms or combinations of organisms might make a good inoculant for container-based biochar use. Two papers describing these results are in their final editing stages and will be submitted for publication in the journal 'Microbial Ecology' within the next few weeks. So, keep an eye out for them in several months time.
The prospect that glomalin might play an important role in terra preta needs to be approached with caution.

I want to add a word of caution about getting too excited about glomalin. Another of my students, Daniel Clune, has been working on this topic and his work suggests that the glycoprotein referred to as 'glomalin' in the literature - operationally defined as the protein extractable in a citrate buffer with repeated autoclaving - is not what it has been purported to be. First, the proteins extractable by this method are from a wide range of sources, not just arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Second, it has a shorter turnover time than has been suggested. Third, in a test with hundreds of samples taken from field trials varying in age from 7 to 12 to 34 years, its relationship with aggregate stability is suggestive at best. Dan's work is also being written up right now and should also be submitted for publication soon.
Could archaea be important?

Some field trials with bamboo char have been conducted in China, with very positive results. Look for upcoming papers from Dr. Zheng of the Bamboo Institute in Hangzhou. Another student in my laboratory, Hongyan Jin, is working with the soils from this experiment to characterize the abundance, activity and diversity of the soil bacteria and archaea. Her first results will be presented at the upcoming conference on Agrichar to be held in Terrigal, NSW, Australia, at the end of April/beginning of May this year. Please be sure to see her poster should you attend this conference.
Janice's recipe for char based potting soil:

Lastly, from my personal gardening experiences, I use spent charcoal from the filters of the 14 aquaria I maintain for my viewing pleasure. I combine it as about 5% of my mix with 65% peat moss, 10% vermicompost (from my worm bin in my basement where I compost all my household kitchen waste - aged and stabilized, not fresh!), 5-10% leaf mulch (composted on my leafy property in NY), 5-7% perlite to increase drainage, decrease bulk density and improve water retention and percolation, and some bone meal and blood meal (to taste :-) ). This makes an excellent potting mix for my indoor 'forest'. I am very much still playing around with this.

I hope this very long posting helps those of you feeling frustrated and wanting answers. Many labs are working on many fronts, but it is early days and we are trying to answer some fundamental questions first and then use the information to guide our field tests and recommendations.

I hope to meet some of you at the Agrichar Conference (see details at the conference website) http://www.iaiconference.org/images/IAI_brochure_5.pdf
The Cornell work and that of many of our colleagues in Brazil, China, the US, Australia and elsewhere will be presented, along with that of many others actively working on agrichar production and use around the world.

Good luck with your own testing and kind regards,

Janice Thies - jet25 at cornell.edu
719 Bradfield Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853

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Edie Frederick said...

Hello Philip,

I am glad to find your central weblog that has hosted the terra preta discussion.

Did I read on your weblog that Richard Branson offered a $25M incentive for solving the replication of terra preta biology?

If so, could you send me a link? I looked at his Virgin websites and saw no mention of terra preta.


Philip Small said...

See: http://www.virginearth.com/

Philip Small said...

It is not TP specific (or even mentioned) but TP enthusiasts are discussing the potential linkage.

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