Why are some microbes more ubiquitous than others? Predicting the habitat breadth of soil bacteria

Albert Barberán, Kelly S. Ramirez, Jonathan W. Leff, Mark A. Bradford, Diana H. Wall, Noah Fierer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

232 Scopus citations


Identifying the traits that determine spatial distributions can be challenging when studying organisms, like bacteria, for which phenotypic information is limited or non-existent. However, genomic data provide another means to infer traits and determine the ecological attributes that account for differences in distributions. We determined the spatial distributions of ~124 000 soil bacterial taxa across a 3.41 km2 area to determine whether we could use phylogeny and/or genomic traits to explain differences in habitat breadth. We found that occupancy was strongly correlated with environmental range; taxa that were more ubiquitous were found across a broader range of soil conditions. Across the ~500 taxa for which genomic information was available, genomic traits were more useful than phylogeny alone in explaining the variation in habitat breadth; bacteria with larger genomes and more metabolic versatility were more likely to have larger environmental and geographical distributions. Just as trait-based approaches have proven to be so useful for understanding the distributions of animals and plants, we demonstrate that we can use genomic information to infer microbial traits that are difficult to measure directly and build trait-based predictions of the biogeographical patterns exhibited by microbes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)794-802
Number of pages9
JournalEcology letters
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bacteria
  • Functional traits
  • Genome size
  • Geographical distribution
  • Habitat breadth
  • Microbial ecology
  • Phylogeny
  • Soil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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