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Front Microbiol. 2014 May 27;5:251. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00251. eCollection 2014.

Trait-based approaches for understanding microbial biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

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Department of Microbial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) Wageningen, Netherlands ; Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Washington Seattle, WA, USA.
Ecologie Microbienne, CNRS, INRA, Université de Lyon, Université Lyon 1, UMR 5557, USC 1193 Villeurbanne, France.
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich Zurich, Switzerland.
Subdepartment of Systems Ecology, Department of Ecological Sciences, VU University Amsterdam Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Department of Biology, Indiana University Bloomington, IN, USA.
Limnology and Science for Life Laboratory, Department of Ecology and Genetics, Uppsala University Uppsala, Sweden.
Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries Berlin, Germany ; Institute for Biochemistry and Biology, Potsdam University Potsdam, Germany.
INRA, UMR 1347 Agroecologie Dijon, France.
Department of Microbial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) Wageningen, Netherlands.


In ecology, biodiversity-ecosystem functioning (BEF) research has seen a shift in perspective from taxonomy to function in the last two decades, with successful application of trait-based approaches. This shift offers opportunities for a deeper mechanistic understanding of the role of biodiversity in maintaining multiple ecosystem processes and services. In this paper, we highlight studies that have focused on BEF of microbial communities with an emphasis on integrating trait-based approaches to microbial ecology. In doing so, we explore some of the inherent challenges and opportunities of understanding BEF using microbial systems. For example, microbial biologists characterize communities using gene phylogenies that are often unable to resolve functional traits. Additionally, experimental designs of existing microbial BEF studies are often inadequate to unravel BEF relationships. We argue that combining eco-physiological studies with contemporary molecular tools in a trait-based framework can reinforce our ability to link microbial diversity to ecosystem processes. We conclude that such trait-based approaches are a promising framework to increase the understanding of microbial BEF relationships and thus generating systematic principles in microbial ecology and more generally ecology.


ecological theory; ecosystem function; functional traits; microbial diversity; study designs

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