Title

Spatial patterning of soil microbial communities created by fungus-farming termites

Publication Date

11-1-2020

Document Type

Article

Department

Biological Sciences

Publication Title

Molecular Ecology

Volume

29

Issue

22

DOI

10.1111/mec.15585

First Page

4487

Last Page

4501

Abstract

Spatially overdispersed mounds of fungus-farming termites (Macrotermitinae) are hotspots of nutrient availability and primary productivity in tropical savannas, creating spatial heterogeneity in communities and ecosystem functions. These termites influence the local availability of nutrients in part by redistributing nutrients across the landscape, but the links between termite ecosystem engineering and the soil microbes that are the metabolic agents of nutrient cycling are little understood. We used DNA metabarcoding of soils from Odontotermes montanus mounds to examine the influence of termites on soil microbial communities in a semi-arid Kenyan savanna. We found that bacterial and fungal communities were compositionally distinct in termite-mound topsoils relative to the surrounding savanna, and that bacterial communities were more diverse on mounds. The higher microbial alpha and beta diversity associated with mounds created striking spatial patterning in microbial community composition, and boosted landscape-scale microbial richness and diversity. Selected enzyme assays revealed consistent differences in potential enzymatic activity, suggesting links between termite-induced heterogeneity in microbial community composition and the spatial distribution of ecosystem functions. We conducted a large-scale field experiment in which we attempted to simulate termites’ effects on microbes by fertilizing mound-sized patches; this altered both bacterial and fungal communities, but in a different way than natural mounds. Elevated levels of inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium may help to explain the distinctive fungal communities in termite-mound soils, but cannot account for the distinctive bacterial communities associated with mounds.

Funding Number

DEB‐1353781

Funding Sponsor

National Science Foundation

Keywords

African savannas, DNA metabarcoding, nitrogen cycling, soil microbial communities, spatial structure, termites

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