Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) productivity influenced by microbial inocula under nitrogen-limited conditions in aquaponics

February 23, 2021

The demand for food will outpace productivity of conventional agriculture due to projected growth of the human population, concomitant with shrinkage of arable land, increasing scarcity of freshwater, and a rapidly changing climate. While aquaponics has potential to sustainably supplement food production with minimal environmental impact, there is a need to better characterize the complex interplay between the various components (fish, plant, microbiome) of these systems to optimize scale up and productivity. Here, we investigated how the commonly-implemented practice of continued microbial community transfer from pre-existing systems might promote or impede productivity of aquaponics. Specifically, we monitored plant growth phenotypes, water chemistry, and microbiome composition of rhizospheres, biofilters, and fish feces over 61-days of lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. crispa) growth in nitrogen-limited aquaponic systems inoculated with bacteria that were either commercially sourced or originating from a pre-existing aquaponic system. Lettuce above- and below-ground growth were significantly reduced across replicates treated with a pre-existing aquaponic system inoculum when compared to replicates treated with a commercial inoculum. Reduced productivity was associated with enrichment in specific bacterial genera in plant roots, including Pseudomonas, following inoculum transfer from pre-existing systems. Increased productivity was associated with enrichment of nitrogen-fixing Rahnella in roots of plants treated with the commercial inoculum. Thus, we show that inoculation from a pre-existing system, rather than from a commercial inoculum, is associated with lower yields. Further work will be necessary to test the putative mechanisms involved.