A team of biologists from New Mexico State University, Oberlin College in Ohio, and 17 other universities and research institutes worldwide has received a European Union grant to investigate the plant and microbial communities of gypsum soils.
NMSU professors Donovan Bailey, Nicole Pietrasiak, and Sara Fuentes-Soriano, as well as Professor Mike Moore from Oberlin College and a team of EU researchers just completed a month of researching plant and soil life on gypsum-rich environments throughout New Mexico, such as White Sands National Monument. They will return again for another month of work in summer 2019.
“Gypsum is high in calcium and sulfur, and has no nitrogen, no potassium, no phosphorous, which are essential for plant growth,” said Moore, who specializes in gypsum flora. “So, gypsum is a terrible soil for normal plants. But when plants that do grow on this soil are tested, their levels for nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous are normal or even elevated. How those elements got into the plant is a mystery, one we’re trying to solve.”
Pietrasiak and Moore said microorganisms living within the thick crust that is typical of gypsum soils might be responsible for providing these nutrients.
Gypsum, known chemically as dihydrated calcium sulfate, is economically very important as the key component of drywall and plaster. It is often found in mineral form in the drier regions of the world, including many parts of New Mexico such as White Sands National Monument. Gypsum ‘outcrops’ are often considered wastelands, yet they have an amazing assortment of organisms found nowhere else on the planet.
“Unique substrates like gypsum lead to a unique flora of microorganisms living within the soil,” said Pietrasiak, who specializes in soil microbiology. “A lot of these microorganisms haven’t been identified, and we’re really interested in learning about the algae and fungi that may be living within the gypsum substrate.”
The role of soil microorganisms in providing nutrients to plants is similar to the role of digestive bacteria in the human gut, which allow for food to be broken down and the nutrients absorbed by the body.
The Chihuahuan Desert has a large amount of gypsum soil and Fuentes-Soriano has previously studied a group of mustards that grow in this bioregion. She said the original inhabitants of New Mexico had many practical uses of local gypsum flora for many aspects of life.
“Four-wing saltbush grows in salty soils, like gypsum, and before human colonization, people used the dry and powdered leaves of saltbush as food seasoning, and used its seeds to make flour,” Fuentes-Soriano said.
Because plants that grow in gypsum soils can be different from those found in other desert environments, Fuentes-Soriano said theres an anthropological interest in preserving gypsum soil, since the plants found in these environments can provide clues as to how native peoples sustainably manage and survive in these environments. This is extremely important because many of the plant species that specialize in gypsum are rare in New Mexico and are of conservation concern.
Moore said studying New Mexico’s gypsum flora is an integral part of the overall EU-funded research program, which will also include research into the gypsum floras found in Iran, Turkey, Australia, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile.
“There’s a different flora that only grows on gypsum in New Mexico, then there’s different flora that only grows on gypsum in Turkey and Spain,” Moore said.
Because the Chihuahuan Desert has the largest known group of plants uniquely adapted to grow on gypsum in the world, Moore noted the importance of research to understand its gypsum flora here in New Mexico.
“In part, the team will be compiling data to try to determine how climate affects plants growing on gypsum,” Bailey said. “For example, we are interested in how the warmer climate of southern New Mexico affects the flora that grows on those gypsum outcrops versus the flora that grows on gypsum in northern New Mexico? With that information, we’ll have a baseline to compare similar data from the other regions being studied.”
The lead principal investigator for the grant is Dr. Sara Palacio at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology in Jaca, Spain.
“She has developed an outstanding research program focused on Spanish gypsum floras and she wanted to expand the research to gain a global perspective by comparing systems across continents” Bailey said.
Palacio and her EU colleagues were awarded a four-year grant that includes collaborative elements with researchers from the US, Australia, the Middle East, and South Africa.
The grant began in January 2018. Further information on the grant and gypsum ecosystems can be found online.
Author: Billy Huntsman – NMSU