The efficiency of microbes

In order to truly understand climate change, we have to understand the carbon cycle – which describes where that notorious element called ‘C’ is moving to. In order to understand that carbon cycle, we need to know who is using that carbon, when and how much. As it turns out, that’s a rather complicated knot to disentangle.

In a recent paper led by Anita Risch, we took a look at the role of some of the more elusive players in that whole business of carbon cycling: soil microbes. Soil microbes play a surprisingly big role in that story, but exactly hów big remains – as so often – hard to grasp. What is known is that soil microbial processes play an important role in the build-up and maintenance of the big chunk of carbon that’s stored in our soils. At the same time, however, soil microbes RELEASE a bunch of carbon into the air via a process called ‘heterotrophic respiration’, best understood as the breathing out we humans also do.

Grassland soils (here at an experimental site in South-Africa) store surprising amounts of carbon (All pictures by the NutNet-network)

From a climate change perspective, one would want microbes to store as much carbon in the soil, and to ‘breath out’ as little as possible. That balance can roughly be considered the ‘efficiency’ of the soil microbial respiration. In a recent paper, we set out to test what defines that efficiency.

A NutNet site in Bogong, Australia

For this assessment, we made use of a fantastic global experiment called NutNet, where scientists took natural grasslands and manipulated the amount of nutrients and herbivores. Then, the scientists from 23 grassland sites took a soil sample and sent it to the lab for a five-week laboratory experiment to assess microbial respiration.

So what did we find? Microbes – at least those in grassland soils – did not seem to care too much about nutrient addition and/or exclusion of herbivores. Indeed, both factors did not significantly affect their efficiency. What they did care about, however, was the local soil and microclimate conditions, which strongly affected that illustrious efficiency.

Herbivory in action in Kilpisjärvi (Finland)

So what to do with this information? Most importantly, perhaps, it explains why local studies across the globe have been finding such contradictory results on the matter. If it is indeed all local soil and microclimate conditions that decide how much microbes respire, it makes sense that each regional study will find a different effect of disturbance factors like nutrient addition or herbivory. A wise lesson again for us all: ecology can be darn complicated.

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Smart time management for the overwhelmed postdoc

Look, I am an ambitious young scientist, but I don’t want to be swamped by work. Witha young family, I know all too well how challenging it can be to juggle work and personal responsibilities. I dream of doing all the science I want without sacrificing precious time with my family.

Enter: smart time management. When my wife introduced me to Motion, a smart time management app that calls itself an “AI executive assistant,” I immediately knew that was EXACTLY what I wanted.

After trying Motion out for a week, I was hooked. Although the app does cost money, I am 100% certain that it pays for itself by increasing my productivity and enabling me to achieve my goals without sacrificing quality family time.

Those two will always come first, and smart time management is key to make that work

Motion is essentially a combination of a smart calendar and a to-do list. You input your tasks, estimate how long they will take, and give each one a deadline. Then, you link the app to your calendar and specify when you don’t want to work, and let the artificial intelligence work its magic. Based on your importance rating and deadlines, Motion provides you with the best possible schedule of when to do each task.

The app shuffles your tasks in such a way that as many of them as possible get done before their deadline. It even warns you when certain tasks won’t fit in your schedule, enabling you to adjust and prioritize your to-do list. With Motion, you can swiftly work through tasks with high urgency without losing sight of your long-term plans.


I love that Motion allows you to see immediately if you’ve taken on too many tasks. You no longer have to worry about biting off more than you can chew, as the app makes it clear which tasks you’ll need to drop to stay on track. Additionally, Motion adjusts instantly to changes in your plan, ensuring that you’re always working on the most important tasks.

My schedule for next week. I’m taking two days off for Easter (we had the family holiday last week already), and leave it to the app to figure out how to arrange my tasks around it

Another great feature of Motion is that it enables you to work on low-priority tasks guilt-free, knowing that the high-priority tasks will also be taken care of. This frees up time for me to work on tasks like writing this blog post, which is definitely not a top priority, but still important to me.

Motion also helps you tackle difficult tasks that you might otherwise avoid by breaking them down into manageable chunks and showing you the reward that comes after completion. This makes it easier to stay motivated and work through challenging projects.

However, there are a few downsides to Motion. If you’re too ambitious with your task list, the app might not be able to schedule certain tasks at all, even with a two-week delay. The AI tends to then simply abandon these asks, regardless of how desperately you needed to do them. It thus remains important to keep track of all your tasks to see nothing crucial gets abandoned.

You also need to be good at estimating how long tasks will take. Although I happen to have a knack for this, others may find it stressful to estimate their workload in advance. And finally, you need to have a certain routine to your weeks to make the most of the app. As a father of two young kids, there is some teeth-grinding involved when I see ambitions dropping off the cliff of hopes into the sea of ‘not gonna happen’. Especially a few days of unexpected sick kids at home can make all the apps’ alarms go off. ‘Good’ thing is: all of that would have been in shambles anyway even without the app, and the app allows you to pick up the pieces much more easily.

Despite my overall positive experience with the app, I have not been able to effectively apply it to non-work related tasks, such as painting the garden shed, due to the unpredictable nature of my schedule with young children. It’s difficult to find a window of time when I can fully dedicate myself to these tasks without interruptions, making it challenging to integrate them into the app’s scheduling system.

In short, I think this app is truly what keeps my ambitious to do-list afloat, without sacrificing my family time, and as a scientist with two part-time postdoctoral positions, this app is what keeps me sane.

I’m not saying you should buy it. I’m just saying I will never ever unbuy it :)!

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Let’s track some noise!

I am delighted to announce that starting this month, I have taken up a part-time position as a postdoctoral researcher to lead a groundbreaking citizen science project on noise pollution in urban environments. The project is being co-led by the University of Antwerp, which has made citizen science a core mission, building on the resounding success of our “CurieuzeNeuzen” initiatives. This opportunity is a perfect blend of my expertise in large-scale environmental monitoring, citizen science, and the urban context, even though it takes me beyond my ‘ecology’ comfort zone.

Cities, such as Brussels, Belgium, are filled with a myriad of sounds. While it is evident that all these sounds can have deleterious effects on human health and well-being, very little is currently known about the spatial distribution of these sounds. That is where our project comes in!

As it is a part-time position, I can continue to devote the rest of my time to my beloved SoilTemp microclimate projects. Additionally, this opportunity is not only a tremendous source of enthusiasm, but it also provides me with a chance to remain in academia for a while longer, until I find a more long-term perspective.

All in all, this is a pretty exciting and promising new beginning! While I am still contemplating how much I will share about this new role on this website, as it is somewhat beyond my usual topics, I am convinced that I can pique your curiosity about noise and its risks and opportunities in the most complex and captivating ecosystem of all: the city.

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I just returned from a journey to the stunning neo-Renaissance castle of Průhonice, located just a short bus ride away from the almost as magical city of Prague. But what brought me to such a picturesque location? Well, let me tell you about the meeting we had with the ASICS network.

The castle of Průhonice and its surrounding botanical garden, home to the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences. A place full of ecological research of the highest level, and an inspiration to its visitors.

The ASICS network is an international group of scientists dedicated to studying the distribution of non-native species in cold environments. These environments include both high latitudes and mountains which, due to their remoteness, often escape our attention. But why is it so important to study non-native species in these extreme conditions?

Over plates of delicious strudel and other Czech delicacies, we delved into discussions about the progress we were making in understanding non-native species’ invasions in these cold environments. We saw stories of beetles on Crozet Island, of springtails on Marion Island, of non-native plants on Svalbard, each tale more exotic than the rest.

The castle not only hosted our meeting, it’s also the scientific home of our colleagues of the Department of Geoecology, better known as the developers of the TOMST TMS4 microclimate sensor. You won’t be surprised to hear I was delighted to visit them and talk microclimate!

While outside the castle walls, the Czech spring was getting into full spring, we discussed how non-native species were dealing with the extreme weather conditions in these environments. We summarized what we knew, and what we still don’t know.

All around us in the botanical garden, springflowers were emerging. With the sun an agreeable 17°C, it was high tide for botany! Here: Hepatica transsilvanica

Despite the challenges, the conclusions of the meeting were promising: we were gathering more data than ever before on the distribution, behavior, and limitations of these species. However, these cold environments remain full of black boxes, and there are still so many aspects that no scientist has ever looked at. For example, have you ever wondered about the invasion of invertebrates in mountains? Few have, so it seems, and the amount of data is worryingly low. We simply don’t know if there are any non-native invertebrates crawling uphill!

Comma butterfly enjoying the spring sun

The best part is that thanks to ASICS, we now have an ambitious, international, and highly diverse team of dedicated individuals joining forces to answer these questions. We are bringing datasets together, sharing expertise, setting up joint protocols on a global scale. Our hopes are that together, we will not only be able to answer more questions than alone, but that we can also bring the world’s attention to the urgent need for conservation of these remote locations.

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Virtual SoilTemp symposium

I am very happy to invite you to a virtual SoilTemp symposium, on May 8th, 2023, from 15h-17h30 Brussels time.

Please, let me know your interest in this symposium through this form!

Final program looks as follows:

Monday May 8th (main event)

15h00-15h05 Trickle in – welcome screen
15h05-15h20 SoilTemp overview (Jonas Lembrechts, 12’+3’)
15h20-15h30 SoilTemp database (Rémy Beugnon, 10’+0’)
15h30-15h45 DirtClim (Dave Klinges, 12’+3’)
15h45-16h00 MIRRA: real-time microclimate sensor (Pieter De Frenne, 12’+3’)
16h00-16h15 ForestClim (Stef Haesen, 12’+3’)

16h15-16h25 Break

16h25-16h40 Global soil frreeze/thaw project (Jeremy Johnston, 12’+3’)
16h40-16h45 Soil moisture fluctuations affect forest temperature buffering (Caroline Greiser, 5’+0’)
16h45-17h10 4 community presentations (Robert Weigel, Matej Man, Diana Stralberg, Martin Dovciak, 5’+0’)
16h10-17h20 How to submit your data? (Jonas Lembrechts, 10’+0’)

17h20-17h45 General questions (0’+25’)

Friday May 12th (add-on session)

9h00-9h05 Trickle in – welcome screen
9h05-9h35 SoilTemp overview, database and main projects (Jonas Lembrechts, 25’+5’)
9h35-9h45 How to submit your data (Jonas Lembrechts, 10’+0’)
9h45-10h30 General questions (0’+45’)

Picture by Stijn Van de Vondel

Please spread the word and invite your colleagues! This symposium is open to all and THE opportunity to get in touch with the network towards publication of the database itself. We will soon start one final push for data submissions towards that publication, which we plan to finish in autumn 2023 (so this will be the final chance for anyone to contribute data and get an invite to co-author our big database). More information on this will follow!  

Looking forward to seeing many of you at our symposium!

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The impact of the pines

Picture this: it’s the 20th century and people are planting pine trees all over Chile. Pines of the genus Pinus, that is, which is very different from the native Araucaria araucana (the monkey puzzle tree). The latter might very well be called the ‘Chilean pine’ by some, but lacked the versatility for those wanting efficient wood production and erosion protection. So: in come the Pinus-pines, to help the economy!

A line of lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta) planted above the treeline at the foot of the Lonquimay-volcano

These might have looked like good ideas – and perhaps still do too many – but now the tables have drastically turned: these pines have spread like wildfire and are causing havoc on the ecosystem. Indeed, those pine trees have the tricky habitat not to remain where they are, and especially in the native Chilean landscape of Araucaria forests and Patagonian steppe, pine trees come across very little resistance. As a result, the once so characteristic landscape is now a tangled mess of pine branches and trunks.

A dense stand of expanding lodgepole pines, with stems growing in all directions, creating an understory that is almost impossible to pass

But what’s happening beneath these dense canopies? How much are the microclimate and soil suffering from these stubborn pine trees? And, even more importantly, what is the impact of these changes on the native vegetation? In a recent study led by our Chilean partners from the University of Concepcíon, we set out to investigate this effect for invasions of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). We measured everything from temperature to soil pH to nutrient availability across a gradient of pine biomass, from scattered individuals to dense entanglements.

Pinus contorta biomass significantly correlates strongly with a wide range of environmental conditions: more pines result in buffered temperatures, loss of light, loss of Potassium, decreased pH and increased litter depth.

Our results – published in ‘Diversity – were alarming – the impact was as huge as we suspected based on visual assessment alone. The more pine trees, the worse it got. The local micro-environment was drastically altered, resulting in a loss of light and nutrients, decreased pH, and increased litter depth, amongst others. But our biggest worry? The native plant diversity was virtually wiped out in the most densely invaded plots.

Native plant species richness (top) and abundance (bottom) decreased significantly with increasing pine biomass, both in the Araucaria-forest (left) and on the Patagonian steppe (right).

Our study revealed that it is probably the interplay of all these environmental factors – all so dramatically changed from background conditions – that explains the progressive drop in native plant species in the understory. Indeed, few native species likely have the necessary flexibility to deal with changes in all these defining environmental characteristics at once. The mechanisms behind the loss of biodiversity of native species associated with plant invasion would thus not only depend on the competition exerted by P. contorta, but also on the modifications that this species exerts on the abiotic environment. Moreover, these microenvironmental changes can have significant effects on other functional groups (e.g., pollinators, decomposers) with important consequences for the whole trophic network of the invaded ecosystems.

Scattered pine trees in between a few old and persistent Araucaria trees

So, what’s the plan of action? Can we get rid of these pine trees, and if so, what happens to the microenvironmental conditions? How long will it take for the ecosystem to bounce back? Once that question is answered, it is of course still a matter of finding affordable solutions to get those stubborn pine trees out of there…

A lodgepole pine seedling just popped up after experimental pine removal, suggesting that recovery of the native vegetation will not be that easy.


García, R. A., Fuentes-Lillo, E., Cavieres, L., Cóbar-Carranza, A. J., Davis, K. T., Naour, M., Lembrechts, J.J. & Pauchard, A. (2023). Pinus contorta Alters Microenvironmental Conditions and Reduces Plant Diversity in Patagonian Ecosystems. Diversity15(3), 320.

The forefront of the Pine invasion, with the Lonquimay-volcano in the background
An impressive Araucaria-tree, looking out at the volcano

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