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Front Microbiol. 2014 May 5;5:203. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00203. eCollection 2014.

The microbial contribution to macroecology.

Author information

1
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, CO, USA.
2
Biogeodynamics and Biodiversity Group, Department of Continental Ecology, Center for Advanced Studies of Blanes - Spanish Council for Research (CSIC) Blanes, Spain.
3
Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, CO, USA ; Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado Boulder, CO, USA.

Abstract

There has been a recent explosion of research within the field of microbial ecology that has been fueled, in part, by methodological improvements that make it feasible to characterize microbial communities to an extent that was inconceivable only a few years ago. Furthermore, there is increasing recognition within the field of ecology that microorganisms play a critical role in the health of organisms and ecosystems. Despite these developments, an important gap still persists between the theoretical framework of macroecology and microbial ecology. We highlight two idiosyncrasies of microorganisms that are fundamental to understanding macroecological patterns and their mechanistic drivers. First, high dispersal rates provide novel opportunities to test the relative importance of niche, stochastic, and historical processes in structuring biological communities. Second, high speciation rates potentially lead to the convergence of ecological and evolutionary time scales. After reviewing these unique aspects, we discuss strategies for improving the conceptual integration of microbes into macroecology. As examples, we discuss the use of phylogenetic ecology as an integrative approach to explore patterns across the tree of life. Then we demonstrate how two general theories of biodiversity (i.e., the recently developed theory of stochastic geometry and the neutral theory) can be adapted to microorganisms. We demonstrate how conceptual models that integrate evolutionary and ecological mechanisms can contribute to the unification of microbial ecology and macroecology.

KEYWORDS:

dispersal; macroecology; microbial ecology; neutral theory; speciation; stochastic geometry

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