Dispersal limitation and thermodynamic constraints govern spatial structure of permafrost microbial communities

Eric M. Bottos, David W. Kennedy, Elvira B. Romero, Sarah J. Fansler, Joseph M. Brown, Lisa M. Bramer, Rosalie K. Chu, Malak M. Tfaily, Janet K. Jansson, James C. Stegen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Understanding drivers of permafrost microbial community composition is critical for understanding permafrost microbiology and predicting ecosystem responses to thaw. We hypothesize that permafrost communities are shaped by physical constraints imposed by prolonged freezing, and exhibit spatial distributions that reflect dispersal limitation and selective pressures associated with these physical constraints. To test this, we characterized patterns of environmental variation and microbial community composition in permafrost across an Alaskan boreal forest landscape. We used null modeling to estimate the importance of selective and neutral assembly processes on community composition, and identified environmental factors influencing ecological selection through regression and structural equation modeling (SEM). Proportionally, the strongest process influencing community composition was dispersal limitation (0.36), exceeding the influence of homogenous selection (0.21), variable selection (0.16) and homogenizing dispersal (0.05). Fe(II) content was the most important factor explaining variable selection, and was significantly associated with total selection by univariate regression (R2 = 0.14, P = 0.003). SEM supported a model in which Fe(II) content mediated influences of the Gibbs free energy of the organic matter pool and organic acid concentration on total selection. These findings suggest that the dominant processes shaping microbial communities in permafrost result from the stability of the permafrost environment, which imposes dispersal and thermodynamic constraints.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberFIY110
JournalFEMS Microbiology Ecology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • community assembly
  • landscape microbial ecology
  • null models
  • permafrost
  • soil organic matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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