Soil Aggregate Microbial Communities: Towards Understanding Microbiome Interactions at Biologically Relevant Scales

Regina L. Wilpiszeski, Jayde A. Aufrecht, Scott T. Retterer, Matthew B. Sullivan, David E. Graham, Eric M. Pierce, Olivier D. Zablocki, Anthony V. Palumbo, Dwayne A. Elias

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

169 Scopus citations


Soils contain a tangle of minerals, water, nutrients, gases, plant roots, decaying organic matter, and microorganisms which work together to cycle nutrients and support terrestrial plant growth. Most soil microorganisms live in periodically interconnected communities closely associated with soil aggregates, i.e., small (<2 mm), strongly bound clusters of minerals and organic carbon that persist through mechanical disruptions and wetting events. Their spatial structure is important for biogeochemical cycling, and we cannot reliably predict soil biological activities and variability by studying bulk soils alone. To fully understand the biogeochemical processes at work in soils, it is necessary to understand the micrometer-scale interactions that occur between soil particles and their microbial inhabitants. Here, we review the current state of knowledge regarding soil aggregate microbial communities and identify areas of opportunity to study soil ecosystems at a scale relevant to individual cells. We present a framework for understanding aggregate communities as "microbial villages" that are periodically connected through wetting events, allowing for the transfer of genetic material, metabolites, and viruses. We describe both top-down (whole community) and bottom-up (reductionist) strategies for studying these communities. Understanding this requires combining "model system" approaches (e.g., developing mock community artificial aggregates), field observations of natural communities, and broader study of community interactions to include understudied community members, like viruses. Initial studies suggest that aggregate-based approaches are a critical next step for developing a predictive understanding of how geochemical and community interactions govern microbial community structure and nutrient cycling in soil.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 15 2019


  • microbial communities
  • soil
  • soil aggregate
  • virus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Ecology


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