Environmental Controls Over the Distribution and Function of Antarctic Soil Microbial Communities

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Virginia Tech


Microbial community composition plays a vital role in soil biogeochemical cycling. Information that explains the biogeography of microorganisms is consequently necessary for predicting the timing and magnitude of important ecosystem services mediated by soil biota, such as decomposition and nutrient cycling. Theory developed to explain patterns in plant and animal distributions such as the prevalent relationship between ecosystem productivity and diversity may be successfully extended to microbial systems and accelerate an emerging ecological understanding of the "unseen majority." These considerations suggest a need to define the important mechanisms which affect microbial biogeography as well as the sensitivity of community structure/function to changing climatic or environmental conditions. To this end, my dissertation covers three data chapters in which I have 1) examined patterns in bacterial biogeography using gradients of environmental severity and productivity to identify changes in community diversity (e.g. taxonomic richness) and structure (e.g. similarity); 2) detected potential bacterial ecotypes associated with distinct soil habitats such as those of high alkalinity or electrical conductivity and; 3) measured environmental controls over the function (e.g. primary production, exoenzyme activity) of soil organisms in an environment of severe environmental limitations. Sampling was performed in the polar desert of Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys, a model ecosystem which hosts microbially-dominated soil foodwebs and displays heterogeneously distributed soil properties across the landscape. Results for Chapter 2 indicate differential effects of resource availability and geochemical severity on bacterial communities, with a significant productivity-diversity relationship that plateaus near the highest observed concentrations of the limiting resource organic carbon (0.30mg C/g soil). Geochemical severity (e.g. pH, electrical conductivity) primarily affected bacterial community similarity and successfully explained the divergent structure of a subset of samples. 16S rRNA amplicon pyrosequencing further revealed in Chapter 3 the identity of specific phyla that preferentially exist within certain habitats (i.e. Acidobacteria in alkaline soils, Nitrospira in mesic soils) suggesting the presence of niche specialists and spatial heterogeneity of taxa-specific functions (i.e. nitrite oxidation). Additionally, environmental parameters had different explanatory power towards predicting bacterial richness at varying taxonomic scales, from 57% of phylum-level richness with pH to 91% of order- and genus-level richness with moisture. Finally, Chapter 4 details a simultaneous sampling of soil communities and their associated ecosystem functions (primary productivity, enzymatic decomposition) and indicates that the overall organic substrate diversity may be greater in mesic soils where bacterial diversity is also highest, thus a potentially unforeseen driver of community dynamics. I also quantified annual rates of soil production which range between 0.7 - 18.1g C/m2/yr from the more arid to productive soils, respectively. In conclusion, the extension of biogeographical theory for macroorganisms has proven successful and both environmental severity and resource availability have obvious (although different) effects on the diversity and composition of soil microbial communities.



microbial ecology, biogeography, productivity/diversity theory, biogeochemistry, McMurdo Dry Valleys