Cultivating Resilience in Dryland Soils: An Assisted Migration Approach to Biological Soil Crust Restoration

Sierra D. Jech, Natalie Day, Nichole N. Barger, Anita Antoninka, Matthew A. Bowker, Sasha Reed, Colin Tucker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Land use practices and climate change have driven substantial soil degradation across global drylands, impacting ecosystem functions and human livelihoods. Biological soil crusts, a common feature of dryland ecosystems, are under extensive exploration for their potential to restore the stability and fertility of degraded soils through the development of inoculants. However, stressful abiotic conditions often result in the failure of inoculation-based restoration in the field and may hinder the long-term success of biocrust restoration efforts. Taking an assisted migration approach, we cultivated biocrust inocula sourced from multiple hot-adapted sites (Mojave and Sonoran Deserts) in an outdoor facility at a cool desert site (Colorado Plateau). In addition to cultivating inoculum from each site, we created an inoculum mixture of biocrust from the Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and Colorado Plateau. We then applied two habitat amelioration treatments to the cultivation site (growth substrate and shading) to enhance soil stability and water availability and reduce UV stress. Using marker gene sequencing, we found that the cultivated mixed inoculum comprised both local- and hot-adapted cyanobacteria at the end of cultivation but had similar cyanobacterial richness as each unmixed inoculum. All cultivated inocula had more cyanobacterial 16S rRNA gene copies and higher cyanobacterial richness when cultivated with a growth substrate and shade. Our work shows that it is possible to field cultivate biocrust inocula sourced from different deserts, but that community composition shifts toward that of the cultivation site unless habitat amelioration is employed. Future assessments of the function of a mixed inoculum in restoration and its resilience in the face of abiotic stressors are needed to determine the relative benefit of assisted migration compared to the challenges and risks of this approach.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2570
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2023


  • assisted migration
  • biological soil crust
  • climate change
  • cyanobacteria
  • microbial ecology
  • restoration
  • soil degradation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Virology


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