Chronic physical disturbance substantially alters the response of biological soil crusts to a wetting pulse, as characterized by metatranscriptomic sequencing

Frontiers in Microbiology
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Abstract

Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are microbial communities that are a feature of arid surface soils worldwide. In drylands where precipitation is pulsed and ephemeral, the ability of biocrust microbiota to rapidly initiate metabolic activity is critical to their survival. Community gene expression was compared after a short duration (1 hour) wetting pulse in both intact and soils disturbed by chronic foot trampling. Across the metatranscriptomes the majority of transcripts were cyanobacterial in origin, suggesting that cyanobacteria accounted for the bulk of the transcriptionally active cells. Chronic trampling substantially altered the functional profile of the metatranscriptomes, specifically resulting in a significant decrease in transcripts for nitrogen fixation. Soil depth (biocrust and below crust) was a relatively small factor in differentiating the metatranscriptomes, suggesting that the metabolically active bacteria were similar between shallow soil horizons. The dry samples were consistently enriched for hydrogenase genes, indicating that molecular hydrogen may serve as an energy source for the desiccated soil communities. The water pulse was associated with a restructuring of the metatranscriptome, particularly for the biocrusts. Biocrusts increased transcripts for photosynthesis and carbon fixation, suggesting a rapid resuscitation upon wetting. In contrast, the trampled surface soils showed a much smaller response to wetting, indicating that trampling altered the metabolic response of the community. Finally, several biogeochemical cycling genes in carbon and nitrogen cycling were assessed for their change in abundance due to wetting in the biocrusts. Different transcripts encoding the same gene product did not show a consensus response, with some more abundant in dry or wet biocrusts, highlighting the challenges in relating transcript abundance to biogeochemical cycling rates. These observations demonstrate that metatranscriptome sequencing was able to distinguish alterations in the function of arid soil microbial communities at two varying temporal scales, a long-term ecosystems disturbance through foot trampling, and a short term wetting pulse. Thus, community metatranscriptomes have the potential to inform studies on the response and resilience of biocrusts to various environmental perturbations.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Chronic physical disturbance substantially alters the response of biological soil crusts to a wetting pulse, as characterized by metatranscriptomic sequencing
Series title Frontiers in Microbiology
DOI 10.3389/fmicb.2018.02382
Volume 9
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Frontiers
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description Article 2382; 17 p.
First page 1
Last page 17