Negative plant-microbiome feedback limits productivity in aquaponics

July 27, 2019

The demand for food will outpace productivity of conventional agriculture due to projected growth of the human population, concomitant with shrinkage of arable land, increasing scarcity of freshwater, and a rapidly changing climate. Efforts to increase conventional agricultural output come with significant environmental impacts stemming from deforestation and excessive use of chemicals, including soil salinization, erosion, and nutrient runoffs. While aquaponics has potential to sustainably supplement food production with minimal environmental impact, there is a need to better characterize the complex interplay between the various components (fish, plant, microbiome) of these systems to optimize scale up and productivity. For instance, much of our knowledge of beneficial and detrimental microbial communities vis-à-vis crop productivity comes from studies on plant-microbiome interactions in soil. Here, we investigated how the practice of continued transfer of microbial communities from pre-existing systems might promote or impede productivity of aquaponics. Specifically, we monitored plant growth phenotypes, water chemistry, and microbiome composition of rhizospheres, biofilters, and fish feces over 61-days of lettuce (Lactuca sativa) growth in aquaponic systems inoculated with bacteria that were either commercially sourced or originating from a pre-existing aquaponic system. Strikingly, L. sativa plant and root growth was significantly reduced across all replicates inoculated with the established microbiome. Further analyses revealed the reduced productivity was potentially a consequence of plant-specific pathogen enrichment, including Pseudomonas, through transfer of microbiomes from pre-existing systems - a phenomenon consistent with negative feedbacks in soil ecology. These findings underscore the need for diagnostic tools to monitor microbiome composition, detect negative feedbacks early, and minimize pathogen accumulation in aquaponic systems.