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ISME J. 2010 Mar;4(3):337-45. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2009.122. Epub 2009 Nov 19.

Relative roles of niche and neutral processes in structuring a soil microbial community.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of York, York, UK.

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  • ISME J. 2010 Aug;4(8):1078.


Most attempts to identify the processes that structure natural communities have focused on conspicuous macroorganisms whereas the processes responsible for structuring microbial communities remain relatively unknown. Two main theories explaining these processes have emerged; niche theory, which highlights the importance of deterministic processes, and neutral theory, which focuses on stochastic processes. We examined whether neutral or niche-based mechanisms best explain the composition and structure of communities of a functionally important soil microbe, the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. Using molecular techniques, we surveyed AM fungi from 425 individual plants of 28 plant species along a soil pH gradient. There was evidence that both niche and neutral processes structured this community. Species abundances fitted the zero-sum multinomial distribution and there was evidence of dispersal limitation, both indicators of neutral processes. However, we found stronger support that niche differentiation based on abiotic soil factors, primarily pH, was structuring the AM fungal community. Host plant species affected AM fungal community composition negligibly compared to soil pH. We conclude that although niche partitioning was the primary mechanism regulating the composition and diversity of natural AM fungal communities, these communities are also influenced by stochastic-neutral processes. This study represents one of the most comprehensive investigations of community-level processes acting on soil microbes; revealing a community that although influenced by stochastic processes, still responded in a predictable manner to a major abiotic niche axis, soil pH. The strong response to environmental factors of this community highlights the susceptibility of soil microbes to environmental change.

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