Peatlands are wetland ecosystems with great significance as natural habitats and as major global carbon stores. They have been subject to widespread exploitation and degradation with resulting losses in characteristic biota and ecosystem functions such as climate regulation. More recently, large-scale programmes have been established to restore peatland ecosystems and the various services they provide to society. Despite significant progress in peatland science and restoration practice, we lack a process-based understanding of how soil microbiota influence peatland functioning and mediate the resilience and recovery of ecosystem services, to perturbations associated with land use and climate change.
We argue that there is a need to: in the short-term, characterise peatland microbial communities across a range of spatial and temporal scales and develop an improved understanding of the links between peatland habitat, ecological functions and microbial processes; in the medium term, define what a successfully restored ‘target’ peatland microbiome looks like for key carbon cycle related ecosystem services and develop microbial-based monitoring tools for assessing restoration needs; and in the longer term, to use this knowledge to influence restoration practices and assess progress on the trajectory towards ‘intact’ peatland status.
Rapid advances in genetic characterisation of the structure and functions of microbial communities offer the potential for transformative progress in these areas, but the scale and speed of methodological and conceptual advances in studying ecosystem functions is a challenge for peatland scientists. Advances in this area require multidisciplinary collaborations between peatland scientists, data scientists and microbiologists and ultimately, collaboration with the modelling community.
Developing a process-based understanding of the resilience and recovery of peatlands to perturbations, such as climate extremes, fires, and drainage, will be key to meeting climate targets and delivering ecosystem services cost effectively.