Metabolic flexibility allows bacterial habitat generalists to become dominant in a frequently disturbed ecosystem

Ya Jou Chen, Pok Man Leung, Jennifer L. Wood, Sean K. Bay, Philip Hugenholtz, Adam J. Kessler, Guy Shelley, David W. Waite, Ashley E. Franks, Perran L.M. Cook, Chris Greening

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23 Citations (Scopus)


Ecological theory suggests that habitat disturbance differentially influences distributions of habitat generalist and specialist species. While well-established for macroorganisms, this theory has rarely been explored for microorganisms. Here we tested these principles in permeable (sandy) sediments, ecosystems with much spatiotemporal variation in resource availability and physicochemical conditions. Microbial community composition and function were profiled in intertidal and subtidal sediments using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing and metagenomics, yielding 135 metagenome-assembled genomes. Community composition and metabolic traits modestly varied with sediment depth and sampling date. Several taxa were highly abundant and prevalent in all samples, including within the orders Woeseiales and Flavobacteriales, and classified as habitat generalists; genome reconstructions indicate these taxa are highly metabolically flexible facultative anaerobes and adapt to resource variability by using different electron donors and acceptors. In contrast, obligately anaerobic taxa such as sulfate reducers and candidate lineage MBNT15 were less abundant overall and only thrived in more stable deeper sediments. We substantiated these findings by measuring three metabolic processes in these sediments; whereas the habitat generalist-associated processes of sulfide oxidation and fermentation occurred rapidly at all depths, the specialist-associated process of sulfate reduction was restricted to deeper sediments. A manipulative experiment also confirmed habitat generalists outcompete specialist taxa during simulated habitat disturbance. Together, these findings show metabolically flexible habitat generalists become dominant in highly dynamic environments, whereas metabolically constrained specialists are restricted to narrower niches. Thus, an ecological theory describing distribution patterns for macroorganisms likely extends to microorganisms. Such findings have broad ecological and biogeochemical ramifications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2986-3004
Number of pages19
JournalThe ISME Journal
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021

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