How GMO’s can influence soil microbiology

On several occasions, we have observed GMO corn crops and GMO corn stalk mulch produce a soil environment that enhanced disease, sometimes dramatically. Why would it be the case that GMO crops produce a disease enhancing soil environment, where non-GMO corn produces a disease suppressive environment?

Other research has identified that GM plants have altered carbohydrate and amino acid profiles in the root exudates, which seems to be a probable mechanism for producing an altered rhizosphere microbiome.

Robert Kremer and I approached this conversation in our podcast interview:

John: Earlier you mentioned the impact of genetically modified plants themselves, apart from glyphosate and AMPA. How do GMOs impact the soil’s microbial community?

Robert: Well, there’s not a lot of information. We found with soybean, for example, that genetic modification can have what are called pleiotropic effects—indirect effects due to the genetic modification that are in addition to the intended effect. In other words, effects that are in addition to the effect of making the plant resistant to glyphosate. And so there are things that can happen in the root system—with some of the early genetically modified soybean varieties, anyway—that even without being treated with glyphosate, the roots seemed to release a lot more carbohydrates or soluble carbon and amino acids. This is problematic because it attracts a lot of microbes that readily use this material, and many of those can be potential pathogens. So you have a potential problem not only with some root pathology, but it’s also possible to build up these segments of the microbial population and carry them over from year to year.

Another situation where we find these effects is in corn. Not in all varieties, but in many varieties that had been genetically modified to be resistant to insects using Bt, there was a side effect where some of the corn stocks would have a lot more lignin than others. Lignin is very difficult to decompose. That’s one of the reasons we sometimes see a lot of that residue being carried over for two or three years in the field—there’s so much lignin that it can’t decompose very fast.

And I think there are other situations that can occur. I had a Brazilian student here who looked at some of the nutrient composition. Some of the omega fatty acid ratios were changed in soybeans due to the genetic modification; that kind of thing. Now, I can’t say for sure if that has changed with some of the more recent cultivars, because I haven’t been looking at that very closely over the last few years. But, as you know, in our commodity agriculture, these varieties change almost from year to year. Some of the varieties that we were using fifteen years ago are not available anymore. So that’s always another problem. You just don’t know whether the effects of these newer varieties are any better or any worse unless somebody has a research program that’s addressing it.

John: Your first point is very intriguing. In essence, what you’re describing is that these crops and these plants may have the capacity to actually develop a disease-enhancing soil profile—which is interesting when you consider the long-term implications.

Robert: Right. That was a completely unexpected result that we had. And we were comparing it to some of the old non-GMO varieties like Williams 82 and Maverick, and they had much lower soluble carbon and amino acid release. So it was quite interesting, to say the least.