Bacterial community structure and function change in association with colonizer plants during early primary succession in a glacier forefield

Joseph E. Knelman, Teresa M. Legg, Sean P. O'Neill, Christopher L. Washenberger, Antonio González, Cory C. Cleveland, Diana R. Nemergut

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

176 Scopus citations


Plants directly interact with the soil microbial community through litter inputs and root exudates, and these interactions may be particularly important in nutrient poor soils that typically characterize early ecosystem development. However, little is known regarding how plant-microbe interactions may actually drive ecosystem processes in early succession, a perspective this study helps to define. We investigated how soil microbial communities develop and interact with the establishment of the first plants in the recently exposed soils of the Mendenhall Glacier forefield near Juneau, AK, USA. We sampled soils from under two different plant species (alder, Alnus sinuata and spruce, Picea sitchensis) and from unvegetated areas; all samples were collected along a single soil transect that had been exposed for 6 years. The presence or absence of vegetation as well as the type of plant (i.e., alder vs. spruce) structured the soil microbial community. Furthermore, asymbiotic nitrogen (N) fixation rates, which were greater in vegetated soils, correlated with differences in bacterial community composition. Although soil microbial community composition varied with vegetation type, soil nutrient and carbon (C) pools did not correlate with bacterial community composition. Moreover, pH did not significantly vary by vegetation type, yet it was the only soil parameter that correlated with bacterial community composition. Vegetation type explained more of the variation in bacterial community composition than pH, suggesting that plant acidification of soils only partly explains the observed shifts in bacterial communities. Plant specific differences in bacterial community structure may also relate to the chemical composition of litter and root exudates. Our research reveals differences in the bacterial community composition of vegetated soils, and how such differences may promote shifts in fundamental biogeochemical processes, such as rates of asymbiotic N fixation, in early stages of primary succession where low N availability may limit bacterial and plant growth and thus constrain ecosystem development. As such, this suggests that plant-soil microbe interactions in themselves may drive processes that shape the trajectory of primary succession.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172-180
Number of pages9
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Mar 2012


  • 16S rRNA gene sequencing
  • Colonization
  • Deglaciation
  • Glacier forefield
  • NifH gene
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Plant-microbe interactions
  • Pyrosequencing
  • Soil microbial community
  • Succession


Dive into the research topics of 'Bacterial community structure and function change in association with colonizer plants during early primary succession in a glacier forefield'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this