The influence of altered precipitation frequency on biological soil crust bacterial community structure, diversity, and ecosystem functions
Biological soil crusts (BSCs), topsoil microbial assemblages typical of arid land ecosystems, provide essential ecosystem services such as soil fertilization and stabilization against erosion. Cyanobacteria and lichens, sometimes mosses, drive BSC as primary producers, but metabolic activity is restricted to periods of hydration associated with precipitation. Climate models for the SW United States predict changes in precipitation frequency as a major outcome of global warming, even if models differ on the sign and magnitude of the change. BSC organisms are clearly well adapted to withstand desiccation and prolonged drought, but it is unknown if and how an alteration of the precipitation frequency may impact community composition, diversity, and ecosystem functions. To test this, we set up a BSC microcosm experiment with variable precipitation frequency treatments using a local, cyanobacteria-dominated, early-succession BSC maintained under controlled conditions in a greenhouse. Precipitation pulse size was kept constant but 11 different drought intervals were imposed, ranging between 416 to 3 days, during a period of 416 days. At the end of the experiments, bacterial community composition was analyzed by pyrosequencing of the 16s rRNA genes in the community, and a battery of functional assays were used to evaluate carbon and nitrogen cycling potentials. While changes in community composition were neither marked nor consistent at the Phylum level, there was a significant trend of decreased diversity with increasing precipitation frequency, and we detected particular bacterial phylotypes that responded to the frequency of precipitation in a consistent manner (either positively or negatively). A significant trend of increased respiration with increasingly long drought period was detected, but BSC could recover quickly from this effect. Gross photosynthesis, nitrification and denitrification remained essentially impervious to treatment. These results are consistent with the notion that BSC community structure adjustments sufficed to provide significant functional resilience, and allow us to predict that future alterations in precipitation frequency are unlikely to result in severe impacts to BSC biology or ecological relevance.