Ecological mechanisms underlying soil bacterial responses to rainfall along a steep natural precipitation gradient

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Changes in the structure and function of soil microbial communities can drive substantial ecosystem feedbacks to altered precipitation. However, the ecological mechanisms underlying community responses to environmental change are not well understood. We used an 18-month soil reciprocal transplant experiment along a steep precipitation gradient to quantify how changes in rainfall affected bacterial community structure. We also conducted an enhanced dispersal treatment to ask whether higher immigration rates of taxa from the surrounding environment would accelerate community responses to climate change. Finally, we addressed how the composition of soil bacteria communities was related to the functional response of soil respiration to moisture in these treatments. Bacterial community structure (OTU abundance) and function (respiration rates) changed little in response to manipulation of either rainfall environment or dispersal rates. Although most bacteria were ecological generalists, a subset of specialist taxa, over 40% of which were Actinobacteria, tended to be more abundant in the rainfall environment that matched their original conditions. Bacteria community composition was an important predictor of the respiration response to moisture. Thus, the high compositional resistance of microbial communities dictated respiration responses to altered rainfall in this system.

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