Spatial variability in streambed microbial community structure across two watersheds

350 210 Stroud Water Research Center

Akinwole, P., J. Kan, L.A. Kaplan, and R.H. Findlay. 2021. Microbiology Spectrum 9(3) e01972-21.

DOI (open access)


Both spatial and temporal variability are key attributes of sedimentary microbial communities, and while spatial effects on beta-diversity appear to dominate at larger distances, the character of spatial variability at finer scales remains poorly understood, especially for headwater stream communities. We investigated patterns of microbial community structure (MCS) in biofilms attached to streambed sediments from two watersheds across spatial scales spanning <1 m within a single stream to several hundred kilometers between watersheds. Analyses of phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) profiles indicated that the variations in MCS were driven by increases in the relative abundance of microeukaryotic photoautotrophs and their contribution to total microbial biomass. Furthermore, streams within watersheds had similar MCS, underscoring watershed-level controls of microbial communities. Moreover, bacterial community structure assayed as either PCR-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE) fingerprints or PLFA profiles edited to remove microeukaryotes indicated a distinct watershed-level biogeography. No distinct stream order-level distributions were identified, although DGGE analyses clearly indicated that there was greater variability in community structure among 1st-order streams than among 2nd- and 3rd-order streams. Longitudinal gradients in microbial biomass and structure showed that the greatest variations were associated with 1st-order streams within a watershed, and 68% of the variation in total microbial biomass was explained by sediment atomic carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio), percent carbon, sediment surface area, and percent water content. This study confirms a distinct microbial biogeography for headwater stream communities driven by environmental heterogeneity across distant watersheds and suggests that eukaryotic photoautotrophs play a key role in structuring bacterial communities on streambed sediments.