Distubance in Microbial Communities

One of the biggest questions in microbial ecology asks how microbial communities will respond to disturbance. Even in macro-organisms, disturbance is a hot topic. Without being able to understand how communities respond to disturbance, it’s nearly impossible to predict the composition of microbial communities. If you have ever taken an antibiotic, then you have personally experienced a disturbance in a microbial community!  Since humans live in such close association with microbes and use them for industrial purposes, we’d really like to be able to predict how a microbial community will respond to changing conditions.

In order to determine whether microbial communities show consistent responses to disturbances, Cristina grew biofilms in a lake and then disturbed them by either scouring them with water or by moving the biofilm to a different depth in the lake. These perturbations were intended to be similar to the effects of a windy day, which might scour the biofilms or move them in the lake. She then looked at species composition in diatoms and bacteria to see how much each community changed after a disturbance.


Myvatn, the lake where Cristina performed her experiments

Cristina found that disturbing microbial communities reduced their variability, meaning that populations of individual taxa were more consistent when disturbed. Communities experiencing the same type of the disturbance also became more similar to each other. Overall, Cristina’s results show that microbial communities change predictably after a disturbance.  This is great news for anyone trying to predict microbial communities!

Read the full paper here:

Herren, Cristina M., Kyle C. Webert, and Katherine D. McMahon. “Environmental Disturbances Decrease the Variability of Microbial Populations within Periphyton.” mSystems 1.3 (2016): e00013-16.




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