Soil microbial community response to drought and precipitation variability in the chihuahuan desert

Jeb S. Clark, James H. Campbell, Heath Grizzle, Veronica Acosta-Martìnez, John C. Zak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


Increases in the magnitude and variability of precipitation events have been predicted for the Chihuahuan Desert region of West Texas. As patterns of moisture inputs and amounts change, soil microbial communities will respond to these alterations in soil moisture windows. In this study, we examined the soil microbial community structure within three vegetation zones along the Pine Canyon Watershed, an elevation and vegetation gradient in Big Bend National Park, Chihuahuan Desert. Soil samples at each site were obtained in mid-winter (January) and in mid-summer (August) for 2 years to capture a component of the variability in soil temperature and moisture that can occur seasonally and between years along this watershed. Precipitation patterns and amounts differed substantially between years with a drought characterizing most of the second year. Soils were collected during the drought period and following a large rainfall event and compared to soil samples collected during a relatively average season. Structural changes within microbial community in response to site, season, and precipitation patterns were evaluated using fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) and polymerase chain reaction-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE) analyses. Fungal FAME amounts differed significantly across seasons and sites and greatly outweighed the quantity of bacterial and actinomycete FAME levels for all sites and seasons. The highest fungal FAME levels were obtained in the low desert scrub site and not from the high elevation oak-pine forests. Total bacterial and actinomycete FAME levels did not differ significantly across season and year within any of the three locations along the watershed. Total bacterial and actinomycete FAME levels in the low elevation desert-shrub and grassland sites were slightly higher in the winter than in the summer. Microbial community structure at the high elevation oak-pine forest site was strongly correlated with levels of NH4 +-N, % soil moisture, and amounts of soil organic matter irrespective of season. Microbial community structure at the low elevation desert scrub and sotol grasslands sites was most strongly related to soil pH with bacterial and actinobacterial FAME levels accounting for site differences along the gradient. DGGE band counts of amplified soil bacterial DNA were found to differ significantly across sites and season with the highest band counts found in the mid-elevation grassland site. The least number of bands was observed in the high elevation oak-pine forest following the large summer-rain event that occurred after a prolonged drought. Microbial responses to changes in precipitation frequency and amount due to climate change will differ among vegetation zones along this Chihuahuan Desert watershed gradient. Soil bacterial communities at the mid-elevation grasslands site are the most vulnerable to changes in precipitation frequency and timing, while fungal community structure is most vulnerable in the low desert scrub site. The differential susceptibility of the microbial communities to changes in precipitation amounts along the elevation gradient reflects the interactive effects of the soil moisture window duration following a precipitation event and differences in soil heat loads. Amounts and types of carbon inputs may not be as important in regulating microbial structure among vegetation zones within in an arid environment as is the seasonal pattern of soil moisture and the soil heat load profile that characterizes the location.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)248-260
Number of pages13
JournalMicrobial Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2009


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