We characterized, at millimeter resolution, bacterial biomass, diversity, and vertical stratification of biological soil crusts in arid lands from the Colorado Plateau. Microscopic counts, extractable DNA, and plate counts of viable aerobic copiotrophs (VAC) revealed that the top centimeter of crusted soils contained atypically large bacterial populations, tenfold larger than those in uncrusted, deeper soils. The plate counts were not always consistent with more direct estimates of microbial biomass. Bacterial populations peaked at the immediate subsurface (1-2 mm) in light-appearing, young crusts, and at the surface (0-1 mm) in well-developed, dark crusts, which corresponds to the location of cyanobacterial populations. Bacterial abundance decreased with depth below these horizons. Spatially resolved DGGE fingerprints of Bacterial 16S rRNA genes demonstrated the presence of highly diverse natural communities, but we could detect neither trends with depth in bacterial richness or diversity, nor a difference in diversity indices between crust types. Fingerprints, however, revealed the presence of marked stratification in the structure of the microbial communities, probably a result of vertical gradients in physicochemical parameters. Sequencing and phylogenetic analyses indicated that most of the naturally occurring bacteria are novel types, with low sequence similarity (83-93%) to those available in public databases. DGGE analyses of the VAC populations indicated communities of lower diversity, with most types having sequences more than 94% similar to those in public databases. Our study indicates that soil crusts represent small-scale mantles of fertility in arid ecosystems, harboring vertically structured, little-known bacterial populations that are not well represented by standard cultivation methods.
Additional publication details
Small-Scale Vertical Distribution of Bacterial Biomass and Diversity in Biological Soil Crusts from Arid Lands in the Colorado Plateau