Core functional traits of bacterial communities in the Upper Mississippi River show limited variation in response to land cover

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Taxonomic characterization of environmental microbial communities via high-throughput DNA sequencing has revealed that patterns in microbial biogeography affect community structure. However, shifts in functional diversity related to variation in taxonomic composition are poorly understood. To overcome limitations due to the prohibitive cost of high-depth metagenomic sequencing, tools to infer functional diversity based on phylogenetic distributions of functional traits have been developed. In this study we characterized functional microbial diversity at 11 sites along the Mississippi River in Minnesota using both metagenomic sequencing and functional-inference-based (PICRUSt) approaches. This allowed us to determine how distance and variation in land cover throughout the river influenced the distribution of functional traits, as well as to validate PICRUSt inferences. The distribution and abundance of functional traits, by metagenomic analysis, were similar among sites, with a median standard deviation of 0.0002% among tier 3 functions in KEGG. Overall inferred functional variation was significantly different (P ≤ 0.035) between two water basins surrounded by agricultural vs. developed land cover, and abundances of bacterial orders that correlated with functional traits by metagenomic analysis were greater where abundances of the trait were inferred to be higher. PICRUSt inferences were significantly correlated (r = 0.147, P = 1.80 × 10-30) with metagenomic annotations. Discrepancies between metagenomic and PICRUSt taxonomic-functional relationships, however, suggested potential functional redundancy among abundant and rare taxa that impeded the ability to accurately assess unique functional traits among rare taxa at this sequencing depth. Results of this study suggest that a suite of "core functional traits" is conserved throughout the river and distributions of functional traits, rather than specific taxa, may shift in response to environmental heterogeneity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number00414
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberAUG
StatePublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded, in part, by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, at the recommendation of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). This work was carried out, in part, using computing resources at the University of Minnesota Supercomputing Institute.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Staley, Gould, Wang, Phillips, Cotner and Sadowsky.


  • Functional diversity
  • Metagenomics
  • Microbial biogeography
  • Microbial community
  • Mississippi River
  • Recreational water


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