There is a very fine difference between drylands and a desert. Arid ecosystems such as drylands are on a very thin line. These water-scarce regions are prone to “desertification” if there is climate change or overgrazing. However, a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science finds that it might be possible to make these ecosystems more resilient to these changes by tweaking the genes of microbes in the soil.

Drylands makeup about 40% of Earth’s land area and is also home to about 40% of Earth’s population, according to Ricard Solé (a biophysicist in Spain). Most drylands are actually quite productive, as they have adapted to the lower levels of moisture and can thrive with less water. However, overgrazing and climate change (which is almost now out of our control) can make these ecosystems collapse and turn into unproductive deserts.

This change is known to happen quickly, within a small period of time after what is known as the “tipping point.” Solé and his team are working on figuring out of genetic modifications to the microbes in the soil of these arid regions that could shift these “tipping points.”

An example of a possible route they are exploring is the modification of photosynthetic bacteria. If the genes in these bacteria are engineered so that it could store more water or capture more phosphorus, it could in-turn, enrich the soil. This will allow more plans to grow and support the faster growth of this bacteria. Solé describes this mutually beneficial process between different species as “cooperative loops.”

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The team’s research is still in its early stages. Right now, they are only working with computer-generated models. However, the team has experimented with multiple models, including one where microbes were simulated with increased dispersion and spreading abilities. These models have shown that these arid ecosystems could be engineered to sustain under even more water-scarce conditions, pushing back the “tipping point.”

As the computer models seem to be successful, Solé and his team plan on working with real organisms next year in laboratory tests. The preliminary research indicates that the desertification of these drylands (which hosts 40% of the human population) could be pushed back by, potentially, decades even. Solé says that this will give humanity more time to solve the issues of climate change, in order to prevent the shortening of thriving land.

Though there is concern that these genetically engineered organisms could cause a chain-reaction of negative events, Solé says that extensive testing would be required to make sure that unintended effects of harm are not caused to the environment.

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Source: Inside Science

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.