July 23, 2020

Deconstructing the Soil Microbiome

Deconstruction of soil microbial communities into discrete functional groups enables piecing together the functional potential of the complex soil microbiome

shovel in soil with tiny green plants around

Microbes in the soil play a major role in nutrient cycling and plant health, but the inherent complexity of the soil microbiome makes it challenging to effectively analyze microbial functions and relationships. 

Image courtesy of Lukas from Pexels

The Science                                

The soil microbiome plays a major role in nutrient cycling and plant health. However, its inherent complexity, with a vast array of microbes that metabolize many different molecules, makes it challenging to effectively analyze ecosystem functions performed by interacting members of soil microbial communities. Researchers dissected the complex microbial community of a native Washington soil into reproducible, low-complexity communities called 'functional modules.' Because these subcommunities are easier to study than a bulk community, researchers could analyze microbial species and functions present in the soil in more depth than before.

The Impact

By studying discrete functional components of the soil microbiome at high resolution, the researchers obtained a more complete picture of soil diversity compared to analysis of the entire soil community. They identified specific evolutionary relationships and biochemical characteristics of the soil microbiome that otherwise would have been hidden in previous community-scale genomic analyses. Improved understanding of the functions of the soil microbiome could help scientists harness beneficial aspects of the soil microbiome to increase soil health or crop productivity.  


One gram of soil contains microbes from thousands of different evolutionary groups. These microbes also have a wide variety of metabolic functions that help them survive in different soil microenvironments. Analyzing the complete functional and taxonomic diversity of a soil microbiome requires a large amount of computing power, and it may fail to capture large populations of quiet or rare microbes.

To simplify the analysis of a soil microbial community, researchers incubated a parent soil microbiome under several different conditions to create different subcommunities of microbes with specific functions, or functional modules. The functional modules included: usage of simple and complex carbon substrates, antibiotic resistance, anaerobic growth with different redox acceptors, and stress resistance. For each functional module, the researchers performed 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing to determine the community composition and RNA sequencing to identify expressed functions. Approximately 27% of unique taxa present in the parent soil were found in the functional modules, in addition to 341 taxa not detected in the parent community. The functional modules had unique gene expression patterns that were also enriched for transcripts associated with functional characteristic of each module. By dissecting the soil microbiome into discrete components, the researchers obtained a more comprehensive and highly detailed view of a soil microbiome and its biochemical potential than through analysis of a soil microbiome as a whole.


Ryan McClure, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, ryan.mcclure@pnnl.gov


This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Program and is a contribution of the Scientific Focus Area “Phenotypic response of the soil microbiome to environmental perturbations.”

Published: July 23, 2020

D. Naylor, et al., “Deconstructing the Soil Microbiome into Reduced-Complexity Functional Modules.” mBio 11, e01349-20 (2020). [DOI: 10.1128/mBio.01349-20]