Functional Responses of Salt Marsh Microbial Communities to Long-Term Nutrient Enrichment

Appl Environ Microbiol. 2016 Apr 18;82(9):2862-2871. doi: 10.1128/AEM.03990-15. Print 2016 May.


Environmental nutrient enrichment from human agricultural and waste runoff could cause changes to microbial communities that allow them to capitalize on newly available resources. Currently, the response of microbial communities to nutrient enrichment remains poorly understood, and, while some studies have shown no clear changes in community composition in response to heavy nutrient loading, others targeting specific genes have demonstrated clear impacts. In this study, we compared functional metagenomic profiles from sediment samples taken along two salt marsh creeks, one of which was exposed for more than 40 years to treated sewage effluent at its head. We identified strong and consistent increases in the relative abundance of microbial genes related to each of the biochemical steps in the denitrification pathway at enriched sites. Despite fine-scale local increases in the abundance of denitrification-related genes, the overall community structures based on broadly defined functional groups and taxonomic annotations were similar and varied with other environmental factors, such as salinity, which were common to both creeks. Homology-based taxonomic assignments of nitrous oxide reductase sequences in our data show that increases are spread over a broad taxonomic range, thus limiting detection from taxonomic data alone. Together, these results illustrate a functionally targeted yet taxonomically broad response of microbial communities to anthropogenic nutrient loading, indicating some resolution to the apparently conflicting results of existing studies on the impacts of nutrient loading in sediment communities.

Importance: In this study, we used environmental metagenomics to assess the response of microbial communities in estuarine sediments to long-term, nutrient-rich sewage effluent exposure. Unlike previous studies, which have mainly characterized communities based on taxonomic data or primer-based amplification of specific target genes, our whole-genome metagenomics approach allowed an unbiased assessment of the abundance of denitrification-related genes across the entire community. We identified strong and consistent increases in the relative abundance of gene sequences related to denitrification pathways across a broad phylogenetic range at sites exposed to long-term nutrient addition. While further work is needed to determine the consequences of these community responses in regulating environmental nutrient cycles, the increased abundance of bacteria harboring denitrification genes suggests that such processes may be locally upregulated. In addition, our results illustrate how whole-genome metagenomics combined with targeted hypothesis testing can reveal fine-scale responses of microbial communities to environmental disturbance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Denitrification / genetics
  • Ecosystem
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • Massachusetts
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / genetics*
  • Metagenomics*
  • Microbiota / genetics*
  • Nitrates / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Salinity
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid
  • Sewage / microbiology
  • Soil Microbiology*
  • Water / chemistry
  • Water Microbiology*
  • Wetlands*


  • Nitrates
  • Sewage
  • Water