Cyanobacterial community composition and their functional shifts associated with biocrust succession in the Gurbantunggut Desert

Shubin Lan, Andrew David Thomas, Julie Bethany Rakes, Ferran Garcia-Pichel, Li Wu, Chunxiang Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Cyanobacteria, as key biocrust components, provide a variety of ecosystem functions in drylands. In this study, to identify whether a cyanobacterial community shift is involved in biocrust succession and whether this is linked to altered ecological functions, we investigated cyanobacterial composition, total carbon and nitrogen contents of biocrusts in the Gurbantunggut Desert. Our findings showed that the biocrust cyanobacteria in the Gurbantunggut desert were mostly filamentous, coexisting with abundant unicellular colonial Chroococcidiopsis. Heterocystous Nostoc, Scytonema and Tolypothrix always represented the majority of biocrust nitrogen-fixing organisms, comprising an average of 92% of the nifH gene reads. Community analysis showed a clear shift in prokaryotic community composition associated with biocrust succession from cyanobacteria- to lichen- and moss-dominated biocrusts, and filamentous non-nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria-dominated communities were gradually replaced by nitrogen-fixing and unicellular colonial communities. Along the succession, there were concomitant reductions in cyanobacterial relative abundance, whereas Chl-a, total carbon and nitrogen contents increased. Concurrently, distinct carbon and nitrogen stores shifts occurred, implying that the main ecological contribution of cyanobacteria in biocrusts changes from carbon- to nitrogen-fixation along with the succession. Our results suggest that any activity that reverses biocrust succession will influence cyanobacterial community composition and eventually lead to large reductions in soil carbon and nitrogen stores.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)884-898
Number of pages15
JournalEnvironmental Microbiology Reports
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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