Riverine bacterial communities reveal environmental disturbance signatures within the betaproteobacteria and verrucomicrobia

John Paul Balmonte, Carol Arnosti, Sarah Underwood, Brent A. McKee, Andreas Teske

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Riverine bacterial communities play an essential role in the biogeochemical coupling of terrestrial and marine environments, transforming elements and organic matter in their journey from land to sea. However, precisely due to the fact that rivers receive significant terrestrial input, the distinction between resident freshwater taxa vs. land-derived microbes can often become ambiguous. Furthermore, ecosystem perturbations could introduce allochthonous microbial groups and reshape riverine bacterial communities. Using full- and partial-length 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequences, we analyzed the composition of bacterial communities in the Tar River of North Carolina from November 2010 to November 2011, during which a natural perturbation occurred: the inundation of the lower reaches of an otherwise drought-stricken river associated with Hurricane Irene, which passed over eastern North Carolina in late August 2011. This event provided the opportunity to examine the microbiological, hydrological, and geochemical impacts of a disturbance, defined here as the large freshwater influx into the Tar River, superimposed on seasonal changes or other ecosystem variability independent of the hurricane. Our findings demonstrate that downstream communities are more taxonomically diverse and temporally variable than their upstream counterparts. More importantly, pre- vs. post-disturbance taxonomic comparison of the freshwater-dominant Betaproteobacteria class and the phylum Verrucomicrobia reveal a disturbance signature of previously undetected taxa of diverse origins. We use known traits of closely-related taxa to interpret the ecological function of disturbance-associated bacteria, and hypothesize that carbon cycling was enhanced post-disturbance in the Tar River, likely due to the flux of organic carbon into the system associated with the large freshwater pulse. Our analyses demonstrate the importance of geochemical and hydrological alterations in structuring bacterial communities, and illustrate the response of temperate riverine bacteria on fine taxonomic scales to a disturbance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1441
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 15. Sept 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • 16S rRNA gene
  • Bacterial community
  • Betaproteobacteria
  • River
  • Verrucomicrobia


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