Under controlled laboratory conditions, high and low ammonium availability are known to favor soil ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and archaea (AOA) communities, respectively. However, whether this niche segregation is maintained under field conditions in terrestrial ecosystems remains unresolved, particularly at the global scale. We hypothesized that perennial vegetation might favor AOB vs. AOA communities compared with adjacent open areas devoid of perennial vegetation (i.e., bare soil) via several mechanisms, including increasing the amount of ammonium in soil. To test this niche-differentiation hypothesis, we conducted a global field survey including 80 drylands from 6 continents. Data supported our hypothesis, as soils collected under plant canopies had higher levels of ammonium, as well as higher richness (number of terminal restriction fragments; T-RFs) and abundance (qPCR amoA genes) of AOB, and lower richness and abundance of AOA, than those collected in open areas located between plant canopies. Some of the reported associations between plant canopies and AOA and AOB communities can be a consequence of the higher organic matter and available N contents found under plant canopies. Other aspects of soils associated with vegetation including shading and microclimatic conditions might also help explain our results. Our findings provide strong evidence for niche differentiation between AOA and AOB communities in drylands worldwide, advancing our understanding of their ecology and biogeography at the global scale.
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