Biological soil crusts (biocrusts), which supply significant amounts of fixed nitrogen into terrestrial ecosystems worldwide (~33Tg y-1), are likely to respond to changes in temperature and precipitation associated with climate change. Using nifH gene-based surveys, we explored variation in the diazotrophic community of biocrusts of the Colorado Plateau, USA in response to season (autumn vs. spring), as well as field manipulations that increased the frequency of small volume precipitation events and year-round soil temperature. Abundance of nifH genes in biocrusts ranged from 3×106 to 1×8 g-1 soil, and nifH from heterocystous cyanobacteria closely related to Scytonema hyalinum, Spirirestis rafaelensis, and Nostoc commune comprised >98% of the total. Although there was no apparent seasonal effect on total nifH gene abundance in the biocrusts, T-RFLP analysis revealed a strong seasonal pattern in nifH composition. Spirirestis nifH abundance was estimated to oscillate 1 to >2 orders of magnitude between autumn (low) and spring (high). A year-round increase of soil temperature (2–3°C) had little effect on the diazotroph community structure over 2 years. Altered summer precipitation had little impact on diazotroph community structure over the first 1.5years of the study, when natural background patterns across years and seasons superseded any treatment effects. However, after the second summer of treatments, nifH abundance was 2.6-fold lower in biocrusts receiving altered precipitation. Heterocystous cyanobacteria were apparently more resilient to altered precipitation than other cyanobacteria. The results demonstrate that diazotrophic community composition of biocrusts in this semi-arid grassland undergoes strong seasonal shifts and that the abundance of its dominant members decreased in response to more frequent, small volume precipitation events.
Additional publication details
Response of biological soil crust diazotrophs to season, altered summer precipitation, and year-round increased temperature in an arid grassland of the Colorado Plateau, USA