Temperature Drives the Continental-Scale Distribution of Key Microbes in Topsoil Communities

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Science  28 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6140, pp. 1574-1577
DOI: 10.1126/science.1236404

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Desert Soil Shuffle

Soil microorganisms make up a substantial fraction of global biomass, turning over carbon and other key nutrients on a massive scale. Although the soil protects them somewhat from daily temperature fluxes, the distribution of these communities will likely respond to gradual climate change. Garcia-Pichel et al. (p. 1574, see the cover; see the Perspective by Belnap) surveyed bacterial diversity across a range of North American desert soils, or biocrusts—ecosystems in which photosynthetic bacteria determine soil fertility and control physical soil properties such as erodability and water retention. Most of the sites were dominated by one of two cyanobacterial species, but their relative proportions were controlled largely by factors related to temperature. Laboratory enrichment cultures of the two species at different temperatures also showed temperature as a primary determining factor of bacterial diversity. It is unknown if temperature will affect the distribution of other soil microorganisms, but the marked shifts of these two keystone bacterial species suggest further change is in store for these delicate ecosystems.


Global warming will likely force terrestrial plant and animal species to migrate toward cooler areas or sustain range losses; whether this is also true for microorganisms remains unknown. Through continental-scale compositional surveys of soil crust microbial communities across arid North America, we observed a latitudinal replacement in dominance between two key topsoil cyanobacteria that was driven largely by temperature. The responses to temperature of enrichment cultures and cultivated strains support this contention, with one cyanobacterium (Microcoleus vaginatus) being more psychrotolerant and less thermotolerant than the other (M. steenstrupii). In view of our data and regional climate predictions, the latter cyanobacterium may replace the former in much of the studied area within the next few decades, with unknown ecological consequences for soil fertility and erodibility.

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