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University of Hong Kong (Pokfulam, Hong Kong) 2013

Microbial ecology of arid environments

Ha, Kong-ying 夏江瀛

Titre : Microbial ecology of arid environments

Auteur : Ha, Kong-ying 夏江瀛

Université de soutenance : University of Hong Kong (Pokfulam, Hong Kong)

Grade : Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) 2013

Deserts comprise the largest terrestrial biome, making up approximately one third of the Earth’s land mass. They are defined in terms of moisture deficit using the Aridity Index with values <1. A further delineation based on mean annual temperatures into hot (>18°C), cold (<18°C) and polar (<0°C) deserts is employed. In the absence of significant macrobiota, microorganisms are key to desert ecosystems. They are located in near-surface soils, and include a widespread hypolithic mode of colonization, where microbial biomass develops on the ventral surfaces of quartz and other translucent stones. A literature review was conducted to appreciate the status of existing knowledge on these systems. Amongst unresolved questions that arose were the following, which form the basis of this inquiry : What are the taxonomic and functional differences between hypolithic and near-soil communities ? Do hypolithic communities assemble differently in deserts of different xeric and thermal stresses ? Can the keystone cyanobacterial taxa be cultivated under laboratory conditions to allow manipulative studies ? The Mojave Desert in the USA was used as a model to test the extent to which hypolithic and near-surface soil communities vary in both taxonomic and putative functional composition. A common phylogenetic marker (16S rRNA gene ITS region) was used to conclude that soil and hypolithic communities are significantly different, although both were dominated by cyanobacteria. The ubiquitous hypolithic cyanobacterial taxon Chroococcidiopsis was encountered, although communities appeared to be dominated functionally by the diazotrophic genus Nostoc. The data strongly suggest that carbon and nitrogen fixation pathways in desert soils are mediated by the same taxa, although heterotrophic pathways may differ and support distinct assemblages of heterotrophic bacteria. An opportunistic sampling of three sites along a latitudinal gradient in China allowed some inference about adaptations in hypoliths. Communities recovered from the cold Tibetan Desert, Taklamakan Basin Desert, and exposed hillsides in tropical Hong Kong, did not display significant differences at the level of community assembly. This suggests that hypolithic taxa undergo strong selection for xeric and extreme thermal stresses. A cultivation strategy for the keystone taxon Chroococcidiopsis has been lacking and is an obvious impediment to manipulative physiological studies. Here various methods for laboratory cultivation were attempted. This bacterium proved extremely fastidious and displayed slow growth rates. After extensive trials a novel cultivation method was developed. This involved using plastic petri dishes containing liquid growth medium, into which glass coverslips were introduced along with cell suspensions. The surface energy of glass served as a nucleation site for Chroococcidiopsis biofilms (which do not develop on plastic surfaces) and this method was evaluated in growth studies as a means of quantifying growth. This research includes key advances to demonstrate that hypoliths and soil, whilst supporting different communities, likely perform similar functional roles in the desert soil. Selection due to the severe environmental stresses results in similar communities across large latitudinal and environmental gradients. The development of a cultivation strategy paves the way for manipulative physiological studies on these important organisms.


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