Articles | Volume 2, issue 3
SOIL, 2, 459–474, 2016
SOIL, 2, 459–474, 2016

Original research article 08 Sep 2016

Original research article | 08 Sep 2016

Soil bacterial community and functional shifts in response to altered snowpack in moist acidic tundra of northern Alaska

Michael P. Ricketts1, Rachel S. Poretsky1, Jeffrey M. Welker2, and Miquel A. Gonzalez-Meler1 Michael P. Ricketts et al.
  • 1Biological Sciences Department, Ecology and Evolution, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
  • 2Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK, USA

Abstract. Soil microbial communities play a central role in the cycling of carbon (C) in Arctic tundra ecosystems, which contain a large portion of the global C pool. Climate change predictions for Arctic regions include increased temperature and precipitation (i.e. more snow), resulting in increased winter soil insulation, increased soil temperature and moisture, and shifting plant community composition. We utilized an 18-year snow fence study site designed to examine the effects of increased winter precipitation on Arctic tundra soil bacterial communities within the context of expected ecosystem response to climate change. Soil was collected from three pre-established treatment zones representing varying degrees of snow accumulation, where deep snow  ∼ 100 % and intermediate snow  ∼ 50 % increased snowpack relative to the control, and low snow ∼ 25 % decreased snowpack relative to the control. Soil physical properties (temperature, moisture, active layer thaw depth) were measured, and samples were analysed for C concentration, nitrogen (N) concentration, and pH. Soil microbial community DNA was extracted and the 16S rRNA gene was sequenced to reveal phylogenetic community differences between samples and determine how soil bacterial communities might respond (structurally and functionally) to changes in winter precipitation and soil chemistry. We analysed relative abundance changes of the six most abundant phyla (ranging from 82 to 96 % of total detected phyla per sample) and found four (Acidobacteria, Actinobacteria, Verrucomicrobia, and Chloroflexi) responded to deepened snow. All six phyla correlated with at least one of the soil chemical properties (% C, % N, C : N, pH); however, a single predictor was not identified, suggesting that each bacterial phylum responds differently to soil characteristics. Overall, bacterial community structure (beta diversity) was found to be associated with snow accumulation treatment and all soil chemical properties. Bacterial functional potential was inferred using ancestral state reconstruction to approximate functional gene abundance, revealing a decreased abundance of genes required for soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition in the organic layers of the deep snow accumulation zones. These results suggest that predicted climate change scenarios may result in altered soil bacterial community structure and function, and indicate a reduction in decomposition potential, alleviated temperature limitations on extracellular enzymatic efficiency, or both. The fate of stored C in Arctic soils ultimately depends on the balance between these mechanisms.

Short summary
Soil microbial communities play a key role in the cycling of carbon (C) in Arctic tundra ecosystems through decomposition of organic matter (OM). Climate change predictions include increased temperature and snow accumulation, resulting in altered plant communities and soil conditions. To determine how soil bacteria may respond, we sequenced soil DNA from a long-term snow depth treatment gradient in Alaska. Results indicate that bacteria produce less OM-degrading enzymes under deeper snowpack.