Rhizosphere: biophysics, biogeochemistry and ecological relevance
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Life on Earth is sustained by a small volume of soil surrounding roots, called the rhizosphere. The soil is where most of the biodiversity on Earth exists, and the rhizosphere probably represents the most dynamic habitat on Earth; and certainly is the most important zone in terms of defining the quality and quantity of the Human terrestrial food resource. Despite its central importance to all life, we know very little about rhizosphere functioning, and have an extraordinary ignorance about how best we can manipulate it to our advantage. A major issue in research on rhizosphere processes is the intimate connection between the biology, physics and chemistry of the system which exhibits astonishing spatial and temporal heterogeneities. This review considers the unique biophysical and biogeochemical properties of the rhizosphere and draws some connections between them. Particular emphasis is put on how underlying processes affect rhizosphere ecology, to generate highly heterogeneous microenvironments. Rhizosphere ecology is driven by a combination of the physical architecture of the soil matrix, coupled with the spatial and temporal distribution of rhizodeposits, protons, gases, and the role of roots as sinks for water and nutrients. Consequences for plant growth and whole-system ecology are considered. The first sections address the physical architecture and soil strength of the rhizosphere, drawing their relationship with key functions such as the movement and storage of elements and water as well as the ability of roots to explore the soil and the definition of diverse habitats for soil microorganisms. The distribution of water and its accessibility in the rhizosphere is considered in detail, with a special emphasis on spatial and temporal dynamics and heterogeneities. The physical architecture and water content play a key role in determining the biogeochemical ambience of the rhizosphere, via their effect on partial pressures of O2 and CO2, and thereby on redox potential and pH of the rhizosphere, respectively. We address the various mechanisms by which roots and associated microorganisms alter these major drivers of soil biogeochemistry. Finally, we consider the distribution of nutrients, their accessibility in the rhizosphere, and their functional relevance for plant and microbial ecology. Gradients of nutrients in the rhizosphere, and their spatial patterns or temporal dynamics are discussed in the light of current knowledge of rhizosphere biophysics and biogeochemistry. Priorities for future research are identified as well as new methodological developments which might help to advance a comprehensive understanding of the co-occurring processes in the rhizosphere.