Analysis of fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) profiles extracted from soils is a rapid and inexpensive procedure that holds great promise in describing soil microbial community structure without traditional reliance on selective culturing, which seems to severely underestimate community diversity. Interpretation of FAME profiles from environmental samples can be difficult because many fatty acids are common to different microorganisms and many fatty acids are extracted from each soil sample. We used principal components (PCA) and cluster analyses to identify similarities and differences among soil microbial communities described using FAME profiles. We also used PCA to identify particular FAMEs that characterized soil sample clusters. Fatty acids that are found only or primarily in particular microbial taxa-marker fatty acids-were used in conjunction with these analyses. We found that the majority of 162 soil samples taken from a conventionally-tilled corn field had similar FAME profiles but that about 20% of samples seemed to have relatively low, and that about 10% had relatively high, bacterial:fungal ratios. Using semivariance analysis we identified 21:0 iso as a new marker fatty acid. Concurrent use of geostatistical and FAME analyses may be a powerful means of revealing other potential marker FAMEs. When microbial communities from the same samples were cultured on R2A agar and their FAME profiles analyzed, there were many differences between FAME profiles of soil and plated communities, indicating that profiles of FAMEs extracted from soil reveal portions of the microbial community not culturable on R2A. When subjected to PCA, however, a small number of plated communities were found to be distinct due to some of the same profile characteristics (high in 12:0 iso, 15:0 and 17:1 ante A) that identified soil community FAME profiles as distinct. Semivariance analysis indicated that spatial distributions of soil microbial populations are maintained in a portion of the microbial community that is selected on laboratory media. These similarities between whole soil and plated community FAME profiles suggest that plated communities are not solely the result of selection by the growth medium, but reflect the distribution, in situ, of the dominant, culturable soil microbial populations.
fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) analysis geostatistics principal components analysis soil microbial community