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Biocrust morphology is linked to marked differences in microbial community composition

Chilton, Angela M., Neilan, Brett A., Eldridge, David J.
Plant and soil 2018 v.429 no.1-2 pp. 65-75
Cyanobacteria, alpha-Proteobacteria, arid lands, community structure, developmental stages, ecological function, environmental health, managers, microbial communities, pigmentation, soil
BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Biocrust morphology is often used to infer ecological function, but morphologies vary widely in pigmentation and thickness. Little is known about the links between biocrust morphology and the composition of constituent microbial community. This study aimed to examine these links using dryland crusts varying in stage and morphology. METHODS: We compared the microbial composition of three biocrust developmental stages (Early, Mid, Late) with bare soil (Bare) using high Miseq Illumina sequencing. We used standard diversity measures and network analysis to explore how microbe-microbe associations changed with biocrust stage. RESULTS: Biocrust richness and diversity increased with increasing stage, and there were marked differences in the microbial signatures among stages. Bare and Late stages were dominated by Alphaproteobacteria, but Cyanobacteria was the dominant phylum in Early and Mid stages. The greatest differences in microbial taxa were between Bare and Late stages. Network analysis indicated highly-connected hubs indicative of small networks. CONCLUSIONS: Our results indicate that readily discernible biocrust features may be good indicators of microbial composition and structure. These findings are important for land managers seeking to use biocrusts as indicators of ecosystem health and function. Treating biocrusts as a single unit without considering crust stage is likely to provide misleading information on their functional roles.