Microbial community succession in tailings materials is poorly understood at present, and likely to be substantially different from similar processes in natural primary successional environments due to the unusual geochemical properties of tailings and the isolated design of tailings storage facilities. This is the first study to evaluate processes of primary succession in microbial communities colonizing unamended tailings, and compare the relative importance of stochastic (predominantly dust-borne dispersal) and deterministic (strong selection pressures from extreme geochemical properties) processes in governing community assembly rates and trajectories to those observed in natural environments. Dispersal-based recruitment required > 6 months to shift microbial community composition in unamended, field-weathered gold tailings; and in the absence of targeted inoculants, recruitment was dominated by salt- and alkali-tolerant species. In addition, cell numbers were less than 106 cells/g tailings until > 6 months after deposition. Laboratory experiments simulating microbial cell addition via dust revealed that high (>6 months' equivalent) dust addition rates were required to effect stabilization of microbial cell counts in tailings. In field-weathered tailings, topsoil addition during rehabilitation works exerted a double effect, acting as a microbial inoculant and correcting geochemical properties of tailings. However, microbial communities in rehabilitated tailings remained compositionally distinct from those of reference soils in surrounding environments. pH, water extractable Mg, and water extractable Fe emerged as major controls on microbial community composition in the field-weathered gold tailings. Overall, this study highlights the need for application of targeted microbial inoculants to accelerate rates of microbial community succession in tailings, which are limited primarily by slow dispersal due to physical and spatial isolation of tailings facilities from inoculant sources; and for geochemical properties of tailings to be amended to moderate values to encourage microbial community diversification and succession.
Keywords: dispersal; microbial colonization; microbial community assembly; microbial community succession; rehabilitation; tailings.