Research Article: Phylogenetic conservation of substrate use specialization in leaf litter bacteria

Date Published: March 30, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kristin L. Dolan, Jeniffer Peña, Steven D. Allison, Jennifer B. H. Martiny, Jeffrey L Blanchard.


Environmental change will influence the ecosystem processes regulated by microbial communities, including leaf litter decomposition. To assess how microbial communities and their functioning might respond to increases in temperature, we quantified the distribution of traits related to carbon substrate utilization and temperature sensitivity in leaf litter bacteria isolated from a natural grassland ecosystem in Southern California. The isolates varied substantially in their carbon substrate use, as well as their response to temperature change. To better predict the functioning and responses in natural communities, we also examined if the functional and response traits were phylogenetically patterned or correlated with one another. We found that the distribution of functional traits displayed a phylogenetic pattern, but the sensitivity of the traits to changes in temperature did not. We also did not detect any correlations between carbon substrate use and sensitivity to changes in temperature. Together, these results suggest that information about microbial composition may provide insights to predicting ecosystem function under one temperature, but that these relationships may not hold under new temperature conditions.

Partial Text

Over the next fifty years, southern California is expected to experience a range of environmental changes, including increased temperature, nitrogen deposition, and precipitation variability [1]. While much research has been devoted to predicting how plant communities will respond to these environmental changes, the response of microbial communities remains relatively unknown (but see [2–4]). Microbial communities play a central role in many ecosystem processes, including the terrestrial carbon cycle through mediation of leaf litter decomposition. Indeed, decomposition is the largest driver of carbon transfer from the biosphere to the atmosphere [5] and is performed almost exclusively by fungi and bacteria [6]. Therefore, determining how microbial communities will respond to changing environmental conditions may improve predictions of future ecosystem carbon cycling.

Our co-occurring leaf litter bacteria varied substantially in their substrate use abilities. While this variation has been previously documented (as seen in [46–48]), there are surprisingly few studies that assay such parameters for isolates isolated from the same community. Although trait values revealed in a laboratory setting may not translate to real-word conditions, these data reveal an estimate of the distribution of traits in a particular community and the breadth of occupied niche space [49]. Such data can also be used to parameterize trait-based models that predict how microbial communities, and their ecosystem functions, will respond to changing environmental conditions (e.g. [50–53]).




0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments