Beneficial Cyanosphere Heterotrophs Accelerate Establishment of Cyanobacterial Biocrust

Corey Nelson, Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are communities of microbes that inhabit the surface of arid soils and provide essential services to dryland ecosystems. While resistant to extreme environmental conditions, biocrusts are susceptible to anthropogenic disturbances that can deprive ecosystems of these valuable services for decades. Until recently, culture-based efforts to produce inoculum for cyanobacterial biocrust restoration in the southwestern United States focused on producing and inoculating the most abundant primary producers and biocrust pioneers, Microcoleus vaginatus and members of the family Coleofasciculaceae (also called Microcoleus steenstrupii complex). The discovery that a unique microbial community characterized by diazotrophs, known as the cyanosphere, is intimately associated with M. vaginatus suggests a symbiotic division of labor in which nutrients are traded between phototrophs and heterotrophs. To probe the potential use of such cyanosphere members in the restoration of biocrusts, we performed coinoculations of soil substrates with cyanosphere constituents. This resulted in cyanobacterial growth that was more rapid than that seen for inoculations with the cyanobacterium alone. Additionally, we found that the mere addition of beneficial heterotrophs enhanced the formation of a cohesive biocrust without the need for additional phototrophic biomass within native soils that contain trace amounts of biocrust cyanobacteria. Our findings support the hitherto-unknown role of beneficial heterotrophic bacteria in the establishment and growth of biocrusts and allow us to make recommendations concerning biocrust restoration efforts based on the presence of remnant biocrust communities in disturbed areas. Future biocrust restoration efforts should consider cyanobacteria and their beneficial heterotrophic community as inoculants. IMPORTANCE The advancement of biocrust restoration methods for cyanobacterial biocrusts has been largely achieved through trial and error. Successes and failures could not always be traced back to particular factors. The investigation and application of foundational microbial interactions existing within biocrust communities constitute a crucial step toward informed and repeatable biocrust restoration methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number20
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • biocrust
  • biological soil crust
  • cyanobacteria
  • cyanosphere
  • soil microbiology
  • soil restoration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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