Soil microbial community function and structure as assessment criteria for the rehabilitation of coal discard sites in South Africa
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Mining activities cause severe disturbance to the soil environment in terms of soil quality and productivity and are of serious concern worldwide. Under South African legislation, developers are required to ecologically rehabilitate damaged environments. The application of agronomic approaches for the rehabilitation of coal discard sites has failed dismally in the arid areas of southern Africa. It is obvious that compliance with mitigation and rehabilitation requirements cannot be enforced without a thorough understanding of the ecological principles that ensure ecological stability and subsequent sustainability of soil ecosystems. Soil micro organisms are crucial role-players in the processes that make energy and nutrients available for recycling in the soil ecosystem. Poor management practices and other negative impacts on soil ecosystems affect both the physical and chemical properties of soil, as well as the functional and structural properties of soil microbial communities. Disturbances of soil ecosystems that impact on the normal functioning of microbial communities are potentially detrimental to soil formation, energy transfers, nutrient cycling, plant reestablishment and long-term stability. In this regard, an extensive overview of soil properties and processes indicated that the use of microbiological and biochemical soil properties, such as microbial biomass, enzymatic activity and the analysis of microbial community structure by the quantification of specific signature lipid biomarkers are useful as indicators of soil ecological stress or restoration properties because they are more responsive to small changes than physical and chemical characteristics. In this study, the relationship between the physical and chemical characteristics and different biological indicators of soil quality in the topsoil covers of seven coal discard sites under rehabilitation in South Africa, as well as three reference sites was investigated. Through the assimilation of basic quantitative data and the assessment of certain physical, chemical and biological properties of the topsoil covers obtained from the various coal discard sites as well as the reference sites, the relative success or progress of rehabilitation and the possible correlation between the biological indicators of soil quality and the establishment of self sustaining vegetation covers was determined. Results from soil physical and chemical analyses and percentage vegetation cover were correlated with the results obtained for the functional and structural diversity of microbial communities at the various sites. All results were investigated through statistical and multivariate analysis and the most prominent physical and chemical parameters that influence the biological and biochemical properties of the soil and possibly the establishment of self-sustainable vegetation cover on these mine-tailing sites were identified. Results obtained from this study indicated no significant difference (p>0.05) between the various discard sites based on conventional microbiological enumeration techniques. However, significant differences (p<0.05) could be observed between the three reference sites. All enzymatic activities assayed for the rehabilitation sites, with the exception of urease and alkaline phosphatase displayed a strong, positive association with the organic carbon content (%C). Ammonium concentration had a weak association with all the enzymes studied and pH only showed a negative association with acid phosphatase activity. A positive association was observed between the viable microbial biomass, vegetation cover and the organic carbon content, ammonium, nitrate and phosphorus concentrations of the soil. The various rehabilitation and reference sites could be differentiated based on the microbial community structure as determined by phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis. It is hypothesised that the microbial community structure of the Hendrina site is not sustainable when classified along an r-K gradient and that the high percentage of vegetation cover and high levels of estimated viable microbial biomass are an artificial reflection of the current management practices being employed at this site. Results obtained during this study, suggest that an absence or low percentage of vegetation cover and associated lower organic matter content of the soil have a significant negative impact on soil biochemical properties (enzymatic activity) as well as microbial population size. Furthermore, prevailing environmental physico-chemical and management characteristics significantly influences the vegetation cover and subsequently the microbial community structure. The results indicate that the microbial ecosystems in the coal discard sites could become more stable and ecologically self-regulating, provided effective management to enhance the organic carbon content of the soil. This could enhance nutrient cycling, resulting in changes of soil structure and eventually an improved soil quality which could facilitate the establishment of self sustaining vegetation cover. Results obtained during this study suggest that a polyphasic assessment of physical and chemical properties; microbial activities by enzymatic analysis; the characterisation of microbial community structure by analysis of phospholipid fatty acids; and the multifactorial analysis of the data obtained can be used as complementary assessment criteria for the evaluation of the trend of rehabilitation of mine tailings and discard sites. Strategic management criteria are recommended based on the soil quality environmental sustainability indices to facilitate the establishment of self sustainable vegetation covers. The contribution of this research to soil ecology is significant with regards to the intensive investigation and explanation of characteristics and processes that drive ecological rehabilitation and determine the quality of the soil environment. The multidisciplinary approach that is proposed could, furthermore, assist in the successful rehabilitation and establishment of self-sustaining vegetation covers at industrially disturbed areas, as well as assist in improving degraded soil quality associated with both intensive and informal agriculture. Additionally, this approach could negate the negative social and environmental impacts frequently associated with these activities.