Glacier shrinkage will accelerate downstream decomposition of organic matter and alters microbiome structure and function

April 4, 2022

NOMIS researcher Tom Battin and colleagues have published research that sheds new light on the downstream impacts of glacier shrinkage. Their findings were published in Global Change Biology.


Tom J. Battin

The shrinking of glaciers is among the most iconic consequences of climate change. Despite this, the downstream consequences for ecosystem processes and related microbiome structure and function remain poorly understood. Here, using a space-for-time substitution approach across 101 glacier-fed streams (GFSs) from six major regions worldwide, we investigated how glacier shrinkage is likely to impact the organic matter (OM) decomposition rates of benthic biofilms. To do this, we measured the activities of five common extracellular enzymes and estimated decomposition rates by using enzyme allocation equations based on stoichiometry. We found decomposition rates to average 0.0129 (% d−1), and that decreases in glacier influence (estimated by percent glacier catchment coverage, turbidity, and a glacier index) accelerates decomposition rates. To explore mechanisms behind these relationships, we further compared decomposition rates with biofilm and stream water characteristics. We found that chlorophyll-a, temperature, and stream water N:P together explained 61% of the variability in decomposition. Algal biomass, which is also increasing with glacier shrinkage, showed a particularly strong relationship with decomposition, likely indicating their importance in contributing labile organic compounds to these carbon-poor habitats. We also found high relative abundances of chytrid fungi in GFS sediments, which putatively parasitize these algae, promoting decomposition through a fungal shunt. Exploring the biofilm microbiome, we then sought to identify bacterial phylogenetic clades significantly associated with decomposition, and found numerous positively (e.g., Saprospiraceae) and negatively (e.g., Nitrospira) related clades. Lastly, using metagenomics, we found evidence of different bacterial classes possessing different proportions of EEA-encoding genes, potentially informing some of the microbial associations with decomposition rates. Our results, therefore, present new mechanistic insights into OM decomposition in GFSs by demonstrating that an algal-based “green food web” is likely to increase in importance in the future and will promote important biogeochemical shifts in these streams as glaciers vanish.

Continue reading this Global Change Biology publication: Glacier shrinkage will accelerate downstream decomposition of organic matter and alters microbiome structure and function