Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) account for a substantial portion of primary production in dryland ecosystems. They successionally mature to deliver a suite of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, water retention and nutrient cycling, and climate regulation. Biocrust assemblages are extremely well adapted to survive desiccation and to rapidly take advantage of the periodic precipitation events typical of arid ecosystems. Here we focus on the wetting response of incipient cyanobacterial crusts as they mature from “light” to “dark.” We sampled a cyanobacterial biocrust chronosequence before (dry) and temporally following a controlled wetting event and used high-throughput 16S rRNA and rRNA gene sequencing to monitor the dynamics of microbial response. Overall, shorter-term changes in phylogenetic beta diversity attributable to periodic wetting were as large as those attributable to biocrust successional stage. Notably, more mature crusts showed significantly higher resistance to precipitation disturbance. A large bloom of a few taxa within the Firmicutes, primarily in the order Bacillales, emerged 18 h after wetting, while filamentous crust-forming cyanobacteria showed variable responses to wet-up across the successional gradient, with populations collapsing in less-developed light crusts but increasing in later-successional-stage dark crusts. Overall, the consistent Bacillales bloom accompanied by the variable collapse of pioneer cyanobacteria of the Oscillatoriales order across the successional gradient suggests that the strong response of few organisms to a hydration pulse with the mortality of the autotroph might have important implications for carbon (C) balance in semiarid ecosystems. IMPORTANCE Desert biological soil crusts are terrestrial topsoil microbial communities common to arid regions that comprise 40% of Earth’s terrestrial surface. They successionally develop over years to decades to deliver a suite of ecosystem services of local and global significance. Ecosystem succession toward maturity has been associated with both resistance and resilience to disturbance. Recent work has shown that the impacts of both climate change and physical disturbance on biocrusts increase the potential for successional resetting. A larger proportion of biocrusts are expected to be at an early developmental stage, hence increasing susceptibility to changes in precipitation frequencies. Therefore, it is essential to characterize how biocrusts respond to wetting across early developmental stages. In this study, we document the wetting response of microbial communities from a biocrust chronosequence. Overall, our results suggest that the cumulative effects of altered precipitation frequencies on the stability of biocrusts will depend on biocrust maturity.
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