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Peatland Microbial Community Composition Is Driven by a Natural Climate Gradient


Peatlands are important players in climate change–biosphere feedbacks via long-term net carbon (C) accumulation in soil organic matter and as potential net C sources including the potent greenhouse gas methane (CH4). Interactions of climate, site-hydrology, plant community, and groundwater chemical factors influence peatland development and functioning, including C dioxide (CO2) and CH4 fluxes, but the role of microbial community composition is not well understood. To assess microbial functional and taxonomic dissimilarities, we used high throughput sequencing of the small subunit ribosomal DNA (SSU rDNA) to determine bacterial and archaeal community composition in soils from twenty North American peatlands. Targeted DNA metabarcoding showed that although Proteobacteria, Acidobacteria, and Actinobacteria were the dominant phyla on average, intermediate and rich fens hosted greater diversity and taxonomic richness, as well as an array of candidate phyla when compared with acidic and nutrient-poor poor fens and bogs. Moreover, pH was revealed to be the strongest predictor of microbial community structure across sites. Predictive metagenome content (PICRUSt) showed increases in specific genes, such as purine/pyrimidine and amino-acid metabolism in mid-latitude peatlands from 38 to 45° N, suggesting a shift toward utilization of microbial biomass over utilization of initial plant biomass in these microbial communities. Overall, there appears to be noticeable differences in community structure between peatland classes, as well as differences in microbial metabolic activity between latitudes. These findings are in line with a predicted increase in the decomposition and accelerated C turnover, and suggest that peatlands north of 37° latitude may be particularly vulnerable to climate change.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to James Seward.

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Electronic Supplementary Material

Supp. Fig. 1

Peatland classification based on the relationship between pH and calcium (Ca) content (PNG 4517 kb)

Supp. Fig. 2

Non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) biplot of temperature, pH, Ca, Ni, K, Mg, Co, and Na (PNG 6168 kb)

Supp. Fig. 3

Taxonomic bar plot showing relative abundance values (%) for domain-level classification of bacterial and archaeal sequences at 10, 30, and 60-cm depth across 20 peatland areas (PNG 3102 kb)

High resolution image (TIFF 853 kb)

High resolution image (TIFF 260 kb)

High resolution image (TIFF 1545 kb)

Supp. Fig. 4

Taxonomic bar plot showing relative abundance values (%) for phylum-level classification for bacterial and archaeal sequences at a 10-cm depth across 20 peatland areas (PDF 184 kb)

Supp. Fig. 5

Taxonomic bar plot showing relative abundance values (%) for phylum-level classification for bacterial and archaeal sequences at a 30-cm depth across 20 peatland areas (PDF 185 kb)

Supp. Fig. 6

Taxonomic bar plot showing relative abundance values (%) for phylum-level classification for bacterial and archaeal sequences at a 60-cm depth across 20 peatland areas (PDF 163 kb)


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Seward, J., Carson, M.A., Lamit, L.J. et al. Peatland Microbial Community Composition Is Driven by a Natural Climate Gradient. Microb Ecol 80, 593–602 (2020).

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  • Peatlands
  • Microbiology
  • Carbon cycling
  • Climate change