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mSystems. 2016 May 17;1(3). pii: e00013-16. eCollection 2016 May-Jun.

Environmental Disturbances Decrease the Variability of Microbial Populations within Periphyton.

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Freshwater and Marine Sciences Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
Department of Zoology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
Departments of Bacteriology and Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.


A central pursuit of microbial ecology is to accurately model changes in microbial community composition in response to environmental factors. This goal requires a thorough understanding of the drivers of variability in microbial populations. However, most microbial ecology studies focus on the effects of environmental factors on mean population abundances, rather than on population variability. Here, we imposed several experimental disturbances upon periphyton communities and analyzed the variability of populations within disturbed communities compared with those in undisturbed communities. We analyzed both the bacterial and the diatom communities in the periphyton under nine different disturbance regimes, including regimes that contained multiple disturbances. We found several similarities in the responses of the two communities to disturbance; all significant treatment effects showed that populations became less variable as the result of environmental disturbances. Furthermore, multiple disturbances to these communities were often interactive, meaning that the effects of two disturbances could not have been predicted from studying single disturbances in isolation. These results suggest that environmental factors had repeatable effects on populations within microbial communities, thereby creating communities that were more similar as a result of disturbances. These experiments add to the predictive framework of microbial ecology by quantifying variability in microbial populations and by demonstrating that disturbances can place consistent constraints on the abundance of microbial populations. Although models will never be fully predictive due to stochastic forces, these results indicate that environmental stressors may increase the ability of models to capture microbial community dynamics because of their consistent effects on microbial populations. IMPORTANCE There are many reasons why microbial community composition is difficult to model. For example, the high diversity and high rate of change of these communities make it challenging to identify causes of community turnover. Furthermore, the processes that shape community composition can be either deterministic, which cause communities to converge upon similar compositions, or stochastic, which increase variability in community composition. However, modeling microbial community composition is possible only if microbes show repeatable responses to extrinsic forcing. In this study, we hypothesized that environmental stress acts as a deterministic force that shapes microbial community composition. Other studies have investigated if disturbances can alter microbial community composition, but relatively few studies ask about the repeatability of the effects of disturbances. Mechanistic models implicitly assume that communities show consistent responses to stressors; here, we define and quantify microbial variability to test this assumption. Author Video: An author video summary of this article is available.


community ecology; disturbance; periphyton; predictability; resilience

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