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Climate warming has direct and indirect effects on microbes associated with carbon cycling in northern lakes

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Winder, Johanna 
Braga, Lucas 
Kuhn, McKenzie 
Thompson, Lauren 
Olefeldt, David 


Northern lakes disproportionately influence the global carbon cycle, and may do so more in the future depending on how their microbial communities respond to climate warming. Microbial communities can change because of the direct effects of climate warming on their metabolism and the indirect effects of climate warming on groundwater connectivity from thawing of surrounding permafrost, especially at lower landscape positions. Here we used shotgun metagenomics to compare the taxonomic and functional gene composition of sediment microbes in 19 peatland lakes across a 1600-km permafrost transect in boreal western Canada. We found microbes responded differently to the loss of regional permafrost cover than to increases in local groundwater connectivity. These results suggest that both the direct and indirect effects of climate warming, which were respectively associated with loss of permafrost thaw and subsequent changes in groundwater connectivity interact to change microbial composition and function. Archaeal methanogens and genes involved in all major methanogenesis pathways were more abundant in warmer regions with less permafrost, but higher groundwater connectivity partly offset these effects. Bacterial community composition and methanotrophy genes did not vary with regional permafrost cover, and the latter changed similarly to methanogenesis with groundwater connectivity. Finally, we found an increase in sugar utilisation genes in regions with less permafrost, which may further fuel methanogenesis. These results provide the microbial mechanism for observed increases in methane emissions associated with loss of permafrost cover in this region and suggest that future emissions will primarily be controlled by archaeal methanogens over methanotrophic bacteria as northern lakes warm. Our study more generally suggests that future predictions of aquatic carbon cycling will be improved by considering how climate warming exerts both direct effects associated with regional-scale permafrost thaw and indirect effects associated with local hydrology.



aquatic carbon cycling, community composition, functional gene analysis, groundwater connectivity, metagenomics, methanogenesis, methanotrophy, permafrost thaw

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Global Change Biology

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European Research Council (804673)