Implications of biochar on UK barley systems: a biological perspective
Borlinghaus, Maria Theresia
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Biochar is the solid, carbon-rich by-product obtained from pyrolysis. It offers the prospect of long-term carbon sequestration and soil conditioning with agronomic benefits, often referred to as the ‘biochar effect‘. These multiple direct or indirect changes in the soil plant interface have also been associated with the control of plant diseases by influencing the host’s systemic induced resistance. The biological impact of biochar on the phytopathology of a major cereal grain has not yet been investigated. The most damaging foliar disease of barley in the UK is Rhynchosporium leaf blotch caused by the hemibiotrophic fungal pathogen Rhynchosporium commune. The aim of this project was to evaluate biochar performance and effectiveness as a disease control agent in the barley – R. commune – pathosystem, and attempted to identify underlying mechanisms by which biochar may function in the interaction between barley and the causal pathogen. Therefore, a unique set of nine slow pyrolysis biochars were established along a 350 to 800°C pyrolysis temperature gradient, with eight of these made from pelleted softwoods and a single one made from Miscanthus straw. A comprehensive biochar quality assessment was undertaken and established that the biochars differed in their chemical composition, which largely depended on production parameters, predominantly temperature (P < 0.05). The analysis proposed that biochar 9, made from Miscanthus at 800°C, showed added value as a soil conditioner over softwood biochars, due to higher pH, mineral ash and macronutrient recoveries, which pointed towards a possible liming potential. Regardless of the feedstock, biochars pyrolysed above 600°C indicated potential use for carbon sequestration purposes, due to higher carbon stability. Short-term controlled bioassays showed significant restricted growth of R. commune mycelium on defined medium to direct (1.0% w/w) and indirect volatile exposure from certain biochars (P < 0.001). The findings suggested a synergistic effect of the softwood biochars acidic nature and presence of fungicidal compounds, with observed inhibition of 100% attributed to re-condensation of tarry vapours onto biochar surfaces during pyrolysis. Qualitative biochar volatile organic compound analysis was conducted and identified biocide active phenolic and organic acid compounds, similar to those commonly found in smoke, bio-oils or wood vinegars. These findings proposed possible application for mitigation of inoculum pressure in field-grown barley, but the toxic nature of volatiles raised concerns over risks to human and environmental health, as also evidenced by detrimental barley growth effects. Subsequent controlled in vivo and in planta experiments revealed significant (P < 0.05) symptomatic barley leaf blotch reduction effects of up to 100%, following 5% (w/w) application of biochars 4, 5, 8 and 9. Barley plants transcriptional changes in ISR-dependent LOX2 and SAR-dependent PR1-b expression in planta verified systemic induced resistance as mechanisms behind the significant disease suppression of barley plants grown in soil amended with biochar 5 and 8. Disease reduction and biochar mediated induced resistance was attributed to either low concentrations of phytotoxic compounds, a direct toxicity effect from fungicidal compounds or indirect promotion of beneficial microbes. The results provided evidence, that in the case of the studied pathosystem, there is potential for biochar with specific characteristics to be considered as a soil amendment, offering not only carbon sequestration, but also possible improved disease resistance.