Background. Eelgrass (Zostera marina) is a marine angiosperm and foundation species that plays an important ecological role in primary production, food web support, and elemental cycling in coastal ecosystems. As with other plants, the microbial communities living in, on, and near eelgrass are thought to be intimately connected to the ecology and biology of eelgrass. Here we characterized the microbial communities in eelgrass sediments throughout an experiment to quantify the rate of ammonification, the first step in early remineralization of organic matter, or diagenesis, from plots at a field site in Bodega Bay, CA.
Methods. Sediment was collected from 72 plots from a 15 month long field experiment in which eelgrass genotypic richness and relatedness were manipulated. In the laboratory, we placed sediment samples (n= 4 per plot) under a N2 atmosphere, incubated them at in situ temperatures (15 oC) and sampled them initially and after 4, 7, 13, and 19 days to determine the ammonification rate. Comparative microbiome analysis using high throughput sequencing of 16S rRNA genes was performed on sediment samples taken initially and at 7, 13 and 19 days to characterize the relative abundances of microbial taxa and how they changed throughout early diagenesis.
Results. Within-sample diversity of the sediment microbial communities across all plots decreased after the initial timepoint using both richness based (observed number of OTUs, Chao1) and richness and evenness based diversity metrics (Shannon, Inverse Simpson). Additionally, microbial community composition changed across the different timepoints. Many of the observed changes in relative abundance of taxonomic groups between timepoints appeared driven by sulfur cycling with observed decreases in sulfur reducers (Desulfobacterales) and corresponding increases in sulfide oxidizers (Alteromonadales and Thiotrichales). None of these changes in composition or richness were associated with ammonification rates.
Discussion. Overall, our results showed that the microbiome of sediment from different plots followed similar successional patterns, which we surmise to be due to changes related to sulfur metabolism. These large changes likely overwhelmed any potential changes in sediment microbiome related to ammonification rate. We found no relationship between eelgrass presence or genetic composition and the microbiome. This was likely due to our sampling of bulk sediments to measure ammonification rates rather than sampling microbes in sediment directly in contact with the plants and suggests that eelgrass influence on the sediment microbiome may be limited in spatial extent. More in-depth functional studies associated with eelgrass microbiome will be required in order to fully understand the implications of these microbial communities in broader host-plant and ecosystem functions (e.g. elemental cycling and eelgrass-microbe interactions).