Causes and functional consequences of denitrifying bacteria community structure in streams affected to varying degrees by watershed urbanization

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Wright, Justin P

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Human welfare depends heavily on ecosystem services like water purification and nutrient cycling. Many of these ecosystem services, in turn, rely on reactions performed by microbes and yet remarkably little is known about how anthropogenic impacts are affecting the structure and function of microbial communities. To help address this knowledge gap, this dissertation uses field surveys and laboratory experiments to examine how watershed urbanization affects microbial communities in receiving streams. We focus on a specific functional group and its associated function - the denitrifying bacteria and denitrification. Denitrifying bacteria use reactive nitrogen and organic carbon as substrates to perform denitrification. Denitrification is one of the few ways to permanently remove reactive nitrogen from ecosystems. Since excess reactive nitrogen in water contributes to serious water quality and human health problems like toxic algal blooms and bowel cancer, denitrification in streams can be considered a valuable ecosystem service. Watershed urbanization, however, may alter the structure of denitrifying bacteria communities in ways that constrain their capacity to remove reactive nitrogen from streams.

Watershed urbanization leads to drastic changes in receiving streams, with urban streams receiving a high frequency of scouring flows, together with increased nutrient (nitrogen and carbon), contaminant (e.g., heavy metals), and thermal pollution. These changes are known to cause significant losses of sensitive insect and fish species from urban streams. Microbes like denitrifying bacteria may be similarly affected. In the first part of this dissertation, we describe results from four repeated surveys of eight central North Carolina streams affected to varying degrees by watershed urbanization. For each stream and sampling date, we characterized both overall and denitrifying bacterial communities and measured denitrification potentials. Differences in overall and denitrifying bacteria community composition were strongly associated with the urbanization gradient. Denitrification potentials, which varied widely, were not significantly associated with substrate supply. By incorporating information on the community composition of denitrifying bacteria together with substrate supply in a linear mixed-effects model, we explained 45% of the variation in denitrification potential (p < 0.001). Results suggest that 1) watershed urbanization can lead to significant changes in the composition of bacterial communities in streams and 2) such changes may have important functional consequences.

The second part of this dissertation examines how urbanization-driven changes to the structure of denitrifying bacteria communities might affect the way they respond to stress or disturbance. Some communities can resist changes to functionality in response to disturbance, potentially as a result of previous exposure and subsequent adaptation (legacy hypothesis) or high diversity (insurance hypothesis). We compare the resistance of two structurally distinct denitrifying bacteria communities to experimental disturbances in laboratory microcosms. Communities originated from either a polluted, warm urban streams or a relatively pristine, cool forest stream. In this case, the two communities had comparable compositions, but forest communities were more diverse than their urban counterparts. Urban communities experienced significant reductions in denitrification rates in response to the most severe increased pollution and temperature treatments, while forest communities were unaffected by those same treatments. These findings support the insurance, but not the legacy hypothesis and suggest that the functioning of urban streams may be more susceptible to further environmental degradation than forest streams not heavily impacted by human activities.

In the third part of this dissertation, we discuss results from a one-time survey of denitrifying bacteria communities and denitrification potentials in 49 central North Carolina streams affected to varying degrees by watershed urbanization. We use multivariate statistics and structural equation modeling to address two key questions: 1) How do different urban impacts affect the structure of denitrifying bacteria communities and 2) How do abiotic (e.g., temperature) versus biotic (denitrifying bacteria community structure) factors affect denitrification potentials in urban streams? Denitrifying bacteria community structure was strongly affected by the urban impacts measured. Community composition responded to increased temperatures, substrate supply, and contamination, while diversity responded negatively to increased temperatures and hydrologic disturbance. Moreover, increased temperatures and substrate supply had significant positive effects, while urbanization-driven changes to denitrifying bacteria community structure had significant negative effects on denitrification potential. The structural equation model captured 63% of the variation in denitrification potential among sites and highlighted the important role that microbial community structure can play in regulating ecosystem functioning. These findings provide a novel explanation for recent observations of decreasing denitrification efficiency with increasing urbanization. Ultimately, we hope findings from this dissertation will help inform more effective stream management and restoration plans and motivate ecologists to consider including microbial community structure in ecosystem models of microbe-mediated processes.






Wang, Si-Yi (2011). Causes and functional consequences of denitrifying bacteria community structure in streams affected to varying degrees by watershed urbanization. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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