Direct evidence for deterministic assembly of bacterial communities in full-scale municipal wastewater treatment facilities

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4 Scopus citations


In this study, we investigated whether bacterial community composition in full-scale wastewater treatment bioreactors can be better explained by niche- or neutral-based theory (deterministic or stochastic) and whether bioreactor design (continuous flow versus fill and draw) affected community assembly. Four wastewater treatment facilities (one with quadruplicated continuous-flow bioreactors, two with one continuous-flow bioreactor each, and one with triplicate fill-and-draw bioreactors) were investigated. Bioreactor community composition was characterized by sequencing of PCR-amplified 16S rRNA gene fragments. Replicate bioreactors at the same wastewater treatment facility had largely reproducible (i.e., deterministic) bacterial community composition, although bacterial community composition in continuous-flow bioreactors was significantly more reproducible (P, 0.001) than in fill-and-draw bioreactors (Bray-Curtis dissimilarity, m= 0.486 0.06 versus 0.586 0.08). Next, we compared our results to previously used indirect methods for distinguishing between deterministic and stochastic community assembly mechanisms. Synchronicity was observed in the bacterial community composition among bioreactors within the same metropolitan region, consistent with deterministic community assembly. Similarly, a null model-based analysis also indicated that all wastewater bioreactor communities were controlled by deterministic factors and that continuous-flow bioreactors were significantly more deterministic (P, 0.001) than fill-and-draw bioreactors (nearest-taxon index, m =3.86 0.6 versus 2.7 6 0.8). Our results indicate that bacterial community composition in wastewater treatment bioreactors is better explained by deterministic community assembly theory; simultaneously, our results validate previously used but indirect methods to quantify whether microbial communities were assembled via deterministic or stochastic mechanisms. IMPORTANCE Understanding the mechanisms of bacterial community assembly is one of the grand challenges of microbial ecology. In environmental systems, this challenge is exacerbated because replicate experiments are typically impossible; that is, microbial ecologists cannot fabricate multiple field-scale experiments of identical, natural ecosystems. Our results directly demonstrate that deterministic mechanisms are more prominent than stochastic mechanisms in the assembly of wastewater treatment bioreactor communities. Our results also suggest that wastewater treatment bioreactor design is pertinent, such that the imposition of feast-famine conditions (i.e., fill-and-draw bioreactors) nudge bacterial community assembly more toward stochastic mechanisms than the imposition of stringent nutrient limitation (i.e., continuous-flow bioreactors). Our research also validates the previously used indirect methods (synchronous community dynamics and an application of a null model) for characterizing the relative importance of deterministic versus stochastic mechanisms of community assembly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number20
StatePublished - Sep 28 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.


  • deterministic community assembly
  • microbiome
  • municipal wastewater treatment
  • nearest-taxon index (NTI)
  • synchrony

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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