Microbial Properties as Indicators of Soil Health

While efforts to define and quantify soil health are hardly new, a consensus on a set of standard conditions that can be used to evaluate soil health is still lacking.

Indicators based on physicochemical soil properties are of paramount importance in soil health assessment. However, an increasingly popular view is that indicators based on biological - especially microbiological - properties are more sensitive to changes than other type of indicators, and provide a broader picture of soil health (Nannipieri et al. 1990; Yakovchenko et al. 1996; Gil-Sotres et al. 2005). In addition, microorganisms respond rapidly to perturbations, as they have intimate relationships with their surroundings due to their relatively high surface-to-volume ratios. It has been described that changes in indicators based on microbial structure and function can even precede detectable changes in soil physical and chemical properties, thereby providing an early sign of improvement or an early warning of soil degradation (Pankhurst et al. 1995).

The bioavailability of heavy metals is another important issue in soil health because of its link to microbial activity. The impact of unusually high levels of heavy metals on soil health is highly dependent on microbial activity, and microbial responses also integrate the effects of chemical mixtures and other information not provided by studying the chemical mixtures themselves.

According to authors as Elliott (1997) and Nortcliff (2002), an indicator of pollution should ideally have the ability to:

• Be sensitivity to the presence of the pollutant

• Reflect different levels of pollution

• Be reliable in terms of its response to any given pollutant

• Be sensitive to a wide variety of pollutants

• Discriminate between the effect of the pollutant and any prior degradation of the soil.

Many biological and biochemical soil properties have been proposed as pollution indicators. An overview of the works published so far shows that there are three main approaches to the use of both general and specific biochemical properties to estimate soil health: (a) the use of individual properties; (b) the use of simple indices based on a few properties; or (c) the use of complex indices resulting from combinations of several properties or that are deduced based on statistical procedures.

Management decisions are usually based on incomplete and fragmented information, but there is a great deal of opportunity to improve the quality of the information used. The challenges for monitoring (evaluating trends) and assessing (evaluating at a point in time) are more limited in scope, but still quite important.

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