Bacteria living on the aerial parts of plants (the phyllosphere) are globally abundant and ecologically significant communities and can have significant effects on their plant hosts. Despite their importance, little is known about the ecological processes that drive phyllosphere dynamics. Here, we describe the development of phyllosphere bacterial communities over time on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana in a controlled greenhouse environment. We used a large number of replicate plants to identify repeatable dynamics in phyllosphere community assembly and reconstructed assembly history by measuring the composition of the airborne community immigrating to plant leaves. We used more than 260,000 sequences from the v5v6 hypervariable region of the 16S rRNA gene to characterize bacterial community structure on 32 plant and 21 air samples over 73 days. We observed strong, reproducible successional dynamics: phyllosphere communities initially mirrored airborne communities and subsequently converged to a distinct community composition. While the presence or absence of particular taxa in the phyllosphere was conserved across replicates, suggesting strong selection for community composition, the relative abundance of these taxa was highly variable and related to the spatial association of individual plants. Our results suggest that stochastic events in early colonization, coupled with dispersal limitation, generated alternate trajectories of bacterial community assembly within the context of deterministic selection for community membership.
Importance: Commensal bacteria associated with plants help protect their hosts against infection and promote growth. Bacteria associated with plant leaves (the "phyllosphere") are highly abundant and diverse communities, but we have very limited information about their ecology. Here, we describe the formation of phyllosphere communities on the plant model organism Arabidopsis thaliana. We grew a large number of plants in a greenhouse and measured bacterial diversity in the phyllosphere throughout the Arabidopsis life cycle. We also measured the diversity of airborne microbes landing on leaves. Our findings show that plants develop distinctive phyllosphere bacterial communities drawn from low-abundance air populations, suggesting the plant environment is favorable for particular organisms and not others. However, we also found that the relative abundances of bacteria in the phyllosphere are determined primarily by the physical proximity of individual plants. This suggests that a mixture of selective and random forces shapes phyllosphere communities.