Thursday, October 3, 2013

Biochar's Interesting effects on Microbial Signaling (Pay Attention Fire Ecologists)

That Magical Mystic Ag-Ingredient used by the Ancient Civilizations of Amazonia. Or so we're told.
Image: Vuthisa Technologies

This post isn't intended on spending much time on the so-called virtues the ancient use of Biochar or it's other name Terra Preta. The top image is probably what comes to most people's mind when they hear the term in discussion or read the name Biochar in a text. A bucket of charcoal being added to the soil. Yet actual Biochar is far more than that as the magnified image reveals about it's true beneficial structure if made properly. True Biochar is actually cooked at higher temperatures than merely burning some material to create some ashes to be mixed into soil. The is clearly a much more sophisticated process by which to manufacture real Biochar. So different temperature will produce different biochars. The  lower temperatures of 400–500 °C (752–932 °F) produce more char, while temperatures above 700 °C (1,292 °F) favor the yield of liquid and gas fuel components. These very high temperatures needed in my opinion are to much for the average home owner or even property owner for which things could get out of control. But the term, 'biochar' being used here is referring to charcoal that is the result of a manufactured byproduct of biofuel production or other various agricultural crop residues, livestock manures, or for that matter any other type of organic material that may come from your garden or landscape. Biochar proponent websites boast about several benefits to the soil. One such benefit is that it serves as a long-term, stable repository of carbon. Since the carbon in biochar decomposes so much slower than the original organic material, it is often considered to be a “carbon negative” material. Hence in this case, it could be said that it is a positive thing to be negative.

Image - Biochar International
Most of the benefits I have read about have to do mainly with agricultural crops. This makes some sense in that biochar is a porous, charged material that has been used as a remedy for soil deficiencies by binding contaminants such as pesticides and/or other heavy metals. And it's been shown to offer a beneficial physical environment for mycorrhizal fungi, which often benefits from biochar amendment. It binds nutrients such as nitrogen, preventing runoff and/or leaching, and releases these nutrients to vegetables and other crops, most of which are shown to benefit from biochar additions. Also, biochars are generally very alkaline, often with a pH close to that of lime. Often times people will even use plain wood ashes to change pH. While I believe this is perfect for garden soils and vegetable crops, it's the wildland forested setting with their naturally acidic soils and their respective acid-loving plants that are going to have more of an issue with an alkaline soil environment, especially after wildfire. Okay, but enough of what most people already know and are aware of. Here is something below that just recently came out about some interesting effects of biochar on the underground soil communication between various microbes and plants.

Researchers from Rice University came up with some incredible findings on the communication disruption between soil microbes (particularly negative pathogens which are the major cause of damping off), though I think there is much more work to be done here. Keep in mind that they are mostly referring to Biochar as it is used among many of the Perma-cult Groups who promote it with regards agricultural practices and soil building methods. But there was one specific point in the study that interested me most, which actually revealed more information about fire ecology and habitat rehabilitation the way it works in Nature. Although the Researchers made absolutely no mention or any such reference whatsoever about fire ecology and plant ecosystem restoration, it nevertheless needs pointing out. Here was the quote I found interesting at the beginning of the article. 
HOUSTON — (Sept. 30, 2013) —  
Rice University: "Biochar quiets microbes, including some plant pathogens"
"In the first study of its kind, Rice University scientists have used synthetic biology to study how a popular soil amendment called “biochar” can interfere with the chemical signals that some microbes use to communicate. The class of compounds studied includes those used by some plant pathogens to coordinate their attacks."
That last sentence in the first paragraph sent off alarms bells and flashing lights for me because it seemed so familiar and something I had observed in the past. I have for years been trying to find out through research, actual hands on observation by means of field work as opposed to relying on what others have written and merely citing these, just how any natural ecosystem regenerates itself with precision and order after a disaster. Hence seed germination and combating against soil pathogens in a Nursery environment without resorting to the present harmful science-based chemical killing method (Methyl Bromide) to totally wipe out all microbes and sterilize soil potting media for 100% seedling germination and plant growth success and using other chemical growth promoters afterwards. Needless to say I did find a viable natural solution with almost 100% success rate, but it's always kool to find out you're not alone in your conclusions and experience. You realize your own work and experimentation has been justified in your speculation, assumptions, facts and even further about the mechanics of what actually goes on after a wildfire disaster. Let me illustrate a point on something I observed on my former land.

Photo: Mine (Spring 2013)
The photo here on the right is that of an almost 25 year old California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) "San Bruno" which is a dwarf variety of Coffeeberry. The first year this plant and one above at the top of this hill behind the pines started baring fruit heavily, I noticed the ScrubJays inside the shrubs harvesting the berries. At first I thought they were eating them on the spot, but later noticed they were flying away with them, but I never found out where. And they just kept coming and going back and forth. That is until the following Spring. The present property is now cleared of much of it's former chaparral which is something I left in place for experimenting with Redshank and Chamise as Nurse plants or Mother Tree examples for various pine and oak seedlings. Also I wanted to know which chaparral worked best in this capacity. Redshank and Scrub Oak won out 1st, but believe it or not, so was Chamise or Greasewood. What I found the following Spring were about between 75 to 100 Coffeeberry seedlings under two separate Manzanita bushes. In the sad pathetic looking photograph below of both Manzanitas which now are looking very poorly and partially defoliated, these are the exact shrubs where the coffeeberry seedlings were found.

Photo: Mine
When I first found the coffeeberry seedlings which had all germinated, my first reaction was wow, how kool, they've reseeded themselves by natural means with help of ScrubJays. But then after that initial excitement faded, I realized I didn't want a cluttered mass of coffeeberry shrubs growing from the understory of the two beautiful Manzanitas only to later overwhelm them. This was the middle of the week and I was determined to move them to new locations elsewhere on my property that Saturday. Well the weekend came and to my shock and surprise, every single one of them had succumbed to "damping off", which is a pathogen collar rot disease common in Nurseries which have not sterilized their potting media. Wow, almost 100 seedlings gone almost over night. I would say disappointed, but there was a learning angle here. Ever notice that most of the Manzanita dander when you're out hiking somewhere is pretty much clean and well manicured and tidy ??? 😁 I've never really found any other plant growing directly under them, with the exception of another plant just outside of the Manzanita's branch canopy drip-line. Still, was it something chemically or biologically within the leaf dander which caused this ??? I figured no chemicals because they may have never germinated and looked so healthy in the first place. So it was some type of biological pathogens, which once again, I have nothing negative to say about them since they provide a sort of ecosystem sterilizing and selecting service effect which keeps the system in pristine shape. That's where this next quote from that published report drew my attention:
“A potted plant may look tranquil, but there are actually a lot of conversations going on in that pot,” said study co-author Joff Silberg, associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology and of bioengineering at Rice. “In fact, there are so many different conversations going on in soil that it was impractical for us to determine exactly how biochar was affecting just one of them.”
image: TimelessLady
" . . . but there are actually a lot of conversations going on in that pot,” - " . . . chemical compound signals that some microbes use to communicate."  & " . . . used by some plant pathogens to coordinate their attacks."
By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter
Ah yes, the old potted plant experience. I know it well from my high school rookie Ornamental Horticulture days of the early 1970s. I lost many a plant germination projects to damping off disease. And who knew these little microbes were busy consulting & communicating each other to coordinate their attacks on my little projects ??? Certainly not me. Never the less, that is exactly what they do. Well, I did find out later after our Ornamental Horticulture Ag Instructor Mr James Dyer explained to us about the damping off problems Nursery Industry has had to fight with for years and the reason for our using deadly fumigation gases to destroy all living biological material within the potting soil we'd mixed to create a sterile uncontaminated media. Still, the use of deadly chemicals didn't sit well with me then and that was my start for looking for a natural means of germination success. But back to Biochar and shutting down conversations. Take a look at these next two photos from the US. Forest Service. These are common the Buckthorn (Rhmanus) seedlings emerging from under the dander of oak leaves and some emerging out on open ground. I'll follow these up be the author's observations and comments.

Beware of the methyl bromide, a pest’s worst nightmare
When I first encountered Methyl Bromide, it was in high school 1972 when I took Vocational Agriculture. In Ornamental Horticulture we were learning about the importance of a sterile potting media for seed flats because pathogens would cause damping off which is a root collar rot which makes an otherwise healthy looking seedling fall completely over. To accomplish this, we were introduced to the wonder mirable of science-based Methyl Bromide which basically destroys all life. Scary stuff and the instructor wouldn't let any of us near this toxic junk. We made the potting mix with various media and put plastic over the top of a giant pile of mix, then shoveled dirt all around the edges to seal off any airflow inside or out. After we all went home the Ag Instructor set off the gas canister under the plastic sheet and sealed it. This gas is so dangerous it is now supposed to be outlawed from 2005, but giant corporate businesses can get exemptions. As a gas it is easily breathed into the lungs or absobed through the skin. It immediate attacks the organs. Having that explained to me made me determined to never ever use it and look for a natural safer means of potting soil sanitation.

Seed Germination & Old School Ideology vrs How Nature Actually Works

Now take a close look at these two photos of two different settings of seedling emergence of Coffeeberry.

Photo by S. Kelly Kearns - USFS

Photos by S. Kelly Kearns - USFS

"Common buckthorn seedling emergence may be better on bare soil than on soil with a dense litter or herbaceous layer, although persistence may be similar among microsites. In field tests, a higher percentage of common buckthorn seed germinated on bare soil than on soil with a dense litter or herbaceous layer. While germination was better on bare soil, survival to the next spring was similar among treatments with bare soil, bare and scratched soil, and dense herbaceous cover. Fewer common buckthorn seedlings were observed in sites with thick red oak leaf litter than in sites with less leaf litter at Eagle Lake Park, Minnesota. Common buckthorn seedling emergence, height, and biomass decreased with increasing litter depth in both field (open oak woodlands) and greenhouse studies, but litter depths up to 2 inches (5.1 cm) did not prevent seedling emergence and survival."
This was exactly my experience as well. Under most all leaf litter dander, seedlings had no problem germinating, but they all failed there after. While the US Forest Service page insists this was the result of shade intolerance on the part of the seedlings, in my observation, which were numerous year after year, every single one succumbed to damping off. Damping off is very unmistakable. Seriously, a young child would get what damping off is. However, I also had reseeding success on open bare ground which had no organic matter and was mostly of decomposed granite composition and this is where I've also observed Manzanita seed germination which does NOT require Fire for germination. I don't know how many times I have to emphasize this. But I've also seen open bare ground with no leaf litter under an almost shaded area situation with only early morning sun with numerous Coffeeberry Seedlings and one Flannel Bush sapling. Look here below. I took this in April of 2013 this year.

photo: Mine

(click to enlarge Image)
I deliberately took this shot with this specific subject in mind. There are many other examples along this east facing bank which is shaded most of the day by large Torrey Pines. There are a couple of Coffeeberry and you can see the young Flannel Bush Tree "San Gabriel" below the parent. There is another much larger one over on the left hand side out of the picture. Flannel Bush seedlings also germinated under some Redshank which are now gone, but they too succumbed to damping off. 

Photo: Mine

Larger reseeded Flannel Bush under Torrey Pine. None of these
 existed when I left in 2002, with exception of Coffeeberry.
Now back to Biochar. Again, Biochar is a product of fire and burning, given the nature of the ash, no matter what form it is in, it is interesting that it can have a calming effect on certain pathogen communications and yet actually at the same time enhance growth of mycorrhizae as they acknowledged in the article.

"The cell-signaling study grew out of a previous investigation by one of the group’s founding members, Carrie Masiello, associate professor of Earth science. Masiello and another member of the group, Rice biologist Jennifer Rudgers (now at the University of New Mexico), were investigating the combined effects of adding biochar and nutrients to soils. In all but one case, the biochar and nutrients seemed to enhance one another. In the lone exception, a soil fungus (mycorrhiza) that was typically beneficial to plants began growing so rapidly that it impeded plant growth."
Shelly Hsiao-Ying Cheng 
This is where I find the results fascinating. While they admit to using an engineered microbe (basically an E-coli) in the communication interruption experiment, I believe it still illustrated the way a system recovers in chaparral or any other plant community after a wildfire, though it should again be acknowledged that they never tough once on this subject. But it should be a future study, if nothing else, than forest regeneration and practical application purposes. It really illustrates how a normal forest understory housecleaning system can be shut down temporarily to allow for newer seedling regeneration and recovery period while chaparral and other plants grow along side for support. I don't agree with the aggressive mycorrhizal growth suppressing the tree growth as there are other studies which show otherwise. Also of note, is the fact that all of this was artificially accomplished inside a Lab, like many things these days. More outdoor observation needs to be done to check for sure how nature works. While some artificial means can point in a right or otherwise interesting direction, more verifiable results in the field need to be exampled to get a fuller more complete picture. For example, many US or State reforestation projects don't ever happen immediately as they would actually occur in Nature. As many have seen and can attest to, many of these replanting projects don't happen until after all damage is assessed and various possible problems such as erosion and other hazards can be cataloged and dealt with at a later date. Tree assessment and seed availability are also taken into consideration in the studies and I don't doubt that "Timber Salvage" operation potential is considered as well in those (BAER) Burned Area Emergency Response studies

Nature has no patience or time to wait for such critical window of opportunity to close on Biochar breakdown and microbe recovery initiation which is often immediate, or when first rains (summer or winter) come. That initial window is imperative and this observation alone should spur and speed up seedling germination and outplanting as quickly as possible. In my experience, they have always waited too late and then blamed the chaparral plant community for invading former forest cover areas. The deliberate and purposed ignorance on this is amazing. Never underestimate the power of a theory developed in a Lab, backed up by Internet citations to trump actual real world observations. This isn't a slam against those researchers who performed this very kool study wonderfully to reveal and uncover an incredible systems pause, since the study had nothing to do with wildfire recovery. Still, in any further future study, it really  should. I'll post some other links related to this below.

Animation by Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery
The above illustration is from the Las Pilitas Nursery's website where  the owner, Bert Wilson, heavily engages his clients in an educational program for proper care of Native California Plants. To be honest, many of the same basic fundamentals and guiding principles also work with common exotic non-natives sold at commercial retail nurseries. The illustration exposes the bogus claims by the LA Times  which spoke of the Rim fire area soil and surrounding habitat being so thoroughly cooked that it would be over fifty years before recovery would have any positive effect. It also erroneously claimed that chaparral would invade, also another lie. Chaparral is native and as the above illustration reveals, Oaks, Ceanothus, Manzanitas, Redshank, Chamise, etc have extremely deep roots, some of which break down past bedrock or hardpan to penetrate into regions where water is readily available. Utilizing a mechanical system of hydraulic lift and redistribution, these massive underground deep root infrastructures feed and support any seedlings on the surface which tap into the mycorrhizal grid at time of germination emergence and microbe housecleaning shut down. Once the housecleaning system kicks in again, the fungal grid creates an antibiotics to ward off any attacks by the pathogens. Who knows, maybe some of these chemical compounds are communications to the pathogen microbes to back off and don't even try it. Clearly, more effort and research should be directly targeted at forest reconstruction through replication as opposed to failed artificial biology.

Richard Halsey: Chaparral Institute
   Again, here is one of the most demonized plants within the chaparral plant community, for it's supposed explosive volatility during wildfires. This is the Chamise or Greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum).Yet it's a major foundational infrastructure species as can be seen by it's extensive deep multiple rooting system along side this shoulder cut in the road. 
Some Interesting Reading References:
Seed Germination & Old School Ideology vrs How Nature Actually Works 
Biochar quiets microbes, including some plant pathogens
Las Pilitas: California Native Plant Nursery
Media & Science News Reporting about the Yosemite Rim Fire
The Ecological Importance of California’s Rim Fire
Voicemail discovered in Nature: Insects Receive Soil Messages from the Past

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