, Volume 109, Issue 1-3, pp 35-47
Date: 03 Sep 2011

A trait-based framework for predicting when and where microbial adaptation to climate change will affect ecosystem functioning

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As the earth system changes in response to human activities, a critical objective is to predict how biogeochemical process rates (e.g. nitrification, decomposition) and ecosystem function (e.g. net ecosystem productivity) will change under future conditions. A particular challenge is that the microbial communities that drive many of these processes are capable of adapting to environmental change in ways that alter ecosystem functioning. Despite evidence that microbes can adapt to temperature, precipitation regimes, and redox fluctuations, microbial communities are typically not optimally adapted to their local environment. For example, temperature optima for growth and enzyme activity are often greater than in situ temperatures in their environment. Here we discuss fundamental constraints on microbial adaptation and suggest specific environments where microbial adaptation to climate change (or lack thereof) is most likely to alter ecosystem functioning. Our framework is based on two principal assumptions. First, there are fundamental ecological trade-offs in microbial community traits that occur across environmental gradients (in time and space). These trade-offs result in shifting of microbial function (e.g. ability to take up resources at low temperature) in response to adaptation of another trait (e.g. limiting maintenance respiration at high temperature). Second, the mechanism and level of microbial community adaptation to changing environmental parameters is a function of the potential rate of change in community composition relative to the rate of environmental change. Together, this framework provides a basis for developing testable predictions about how the rate and degree of microbial adaptation to climate change will alter biogeochemical processes in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems across the planet.