Meet Yong-Guan Zhu: Leader of the China Soil Microbiome Initiative


While our Editor-in-Chief of FEMS Microbiology Ecology, Prof. Max Häggblom, was visiting China he met with Yong-Guan Zhu, eminent Chinese scientist and project lead of the China Soil Microbiome Initiative. Max managed to find the time to ask Yong-Guan Zhu a few questions about his role, his research, and his work with FEMS:

What is your current position, and how did you come to be there?

I am appointed as the Director for Education/Internationalization, Institute of Urban Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences. My own research area is environmental soil science and environmental biology. I am currently leading the China Soil Microbiome Initiative with over 100 research scientists.

Tell us about the China Soil Microbiome Initiative – what are the goals of the project, and why is it important to reach those goals?

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) initiated a strategic priority research program termed China Soil Microbiome Initiative (CSMI). It aimed to:

(1) examine the diversity and biogeographical patterns of soil microbiome in the main terrestrial ecosystems in China;

(2) elucidate the microbial ecology of the biogeochemistry of key elements;

(3) characterize the interactions between above- and below-ground processes;

(4) network research platforms for soil biological functions and their exploration;

and (5) develop new technologies and methodologies for soil microbiome studies.

It is expected that the proposed program will bring significant breakthroughs in characterizing soil microbial systems and their functions in diverse Chinese soils, and will lay solid foundations for the exploration of the key roles of soil microbiome in ensuring food security and environmental quality.

It is also envisaged that the implementation of the program will train new talents in soil biology research, will gain international recognition to facilitate closer collaborations, and will ensure advances into the future, not only for China, but also for the world.

What impact do you think the results of this research could have on the wider Chinese community?

This project will provide continental scale understanding of the soil microbial diversity and its key functions, and efforts will also be paid on how to harness the functions for better crop yields. So the impacts of this project in China will not only be on the science of soil biodiversity, but also on its application in agroecosystems for better productivity.

Why did you choose to work with FEMS on bringing this Thematic Issue together?

FEMS has a broad spectrum of topics which suits our program very well. From my personal experience, I feel FEMS is always inclusive and has high visibility among soil biologists, microbial ecologists and microbiologists.

How sustainable is the soil environment in China and the West? Is there any cause for concern with modern soil management practices?

This is a big question, but my response in short is that, with the modernization and intensification, soil biota are under stresses, and thus understanding the soil biodiversity and functions is critical in managing soils for sustainable use.

Can you tell us about an interesting microorganism you have encountered in the China Soil Microbiome project that people might not know about or that is unique to China?

I do not think there any unique microbe in China, but we do encounter some unique biogeochemical processes in Chinese soils. One example would be anaerobic ammonium oxidation coupled to iron reduction, we found this process is ubiquitous in paddy soils, but the microbial mechanism has yet to be explored in details.

Discover a Thematic Issue of FEMS Microbiology Ecology on Subsurface Microbiology

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