Soil Microbial Community Structure across a Thermal Gradient following a Geothermal Heating Event


American Society for Microbiology


In this study microbial species diversity was assessed across a landscape in Yellowstone National Park, where an abrupt increase in soil temperature had occurred due to recent geothermal activity. Soil temperatures were measured, and samples were taken across a temperature gradient (35 to 65°C at a 15-cm depth) that spanned geothermally disturbed and unimpacted soils; thermally perturbed soils were visually apparent by the occurrence of dead or dying lodgepole pine trees. Changes in soil microbial diversity across the temperature gradient were qualitatively assessed based on 16S rRNA sequence variation as detected by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) using both ribosomal DNA (rDNA) and rRNA as PCR templates and primers specific for the Bacteria or Archaea domain. The impact of the major heating disturbance was apparent in that DGGE profiles from heated soils appeared less complex than those from the unaffected soils. Phylogenetic analysis of a bacterial 16S rDNA PCR clone library from a recently heated soil showed that a majority of the clones belonged to the Acidobacterium (51%) and Planctomyces (18%) divisions. Agar plate counts of soil suspensions cultured on dilute yeast extract and R2A agar media incubated at 25 or 50°C revealed that thermophile populations were two to three orders of magnitude greater in the recently heated soil. A soil microcosm laboratory experiment simulated the geothermal heating event. As determined by both RNA- and DNA-based PCR coupled with DGGE, changes in community structure (marked change in the DGGE profile) of soils incubated at 50°C occurred within 1 week and appeared to stabilize after 3 weeks. The results of our molecular and culture data suggest that thermophiles or thermotolerant species are randomly distributed in this area within Yellowstone National Park and that localized thermal activity selects for them.

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