Factors Controlling Soil Microbial Biomass and Bacterial Diversity and Community Composition in a Cold Desert Ecosystem: Role of Geographic Scale


Understanding controls over the distribution of soil bacteria is a fundamental step toward describing soil ecosystems, understanding their functional capabilities, and predicting their responses to environmental change. This study investigated the controls on the biomass, species richness, and community structure and composition of soil bacterial communities in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, at local and regional scales. The goals of the study were to describe the relationships between abiotic characteristics and soil bacteria in this unique, microbially dominated environment, and to test the scale dependence of these relationships in a low complexity ecosystem. Samples were collected from dry mineral soils associated with snow patches, which are a significant source of water in this desert environment, at six sites located in the major basins of the Taylor and Wright Valleys. Samples were analyzed for a suite of characteristics including soil moisture, pH, electrical conductivity, soil organic matter, major nutrients and ions, microbial biomass, 16 S rRNA gene richness, and bacterial community structure and composition. Snow patches created local biogeochemical gradients while inter-basin comparisons encompassed landscape scale gradients enabling comparisons of microbial controls at two distinct spatial scales. At the organic carbon rich, mesic, low elevation sites Acidobacteria and Actinobacteria were prevalent, while Firmicutes and Proteobacteria were dominant at the high elevation, low moisture and biomass sites. Microbial parameters were significantly related with soil water content and edaphic characteristics including soil pH, organic matter, and sulfate. However, the magnitude and even the direction of these relationships varied across basins and the application of mixed effects models revealed evidence of significant contextual effects at local and regional scales. The results highlight the importance of the geographic scale of sampling when determining the controls on soil microbial community characteristics.