Dispersal and environmental selection are two of the most important factors that govern the distributions of microbial communities in nature. While dispersal rates are often inferred by measuring the degree to which community similarity diminishes with increasing geographic distance, determining the extent to which environmental selection impacts the distribution of microbes is more complex. To address this knowledge gap, we performed a large reciprocal transplant experiment to simulate the dispersal of US East Coast salt marsh Spartina alterniflora rhizome-associated microbial sediment communities across a latitudinal gradient and determined if any shifts in microbial community composition occurred as a result of the transplantation. Using bacterial 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we did not observe large-scale changes in community composition over a five-month S. alterniflora summer growing season and found that transplanted communities more closely resembled their origin sites than their destination sites. Furthermore, transplanted communities grouped predominantly by region, with two sites from the north and three sites to the south hosting distinct bacterial taxa, suggesting that sediment communities transplanted from north to south tended to retain their northern microbial distributions, and south to north maintained a southern distribution. A small number of potential indicator 16S rRNA gene sequences had distributions that were strongly correlated to both temperature and nitrogen, indicating that some organisms are more sensitive to environmental factors than others. These results provide new insight into the microbial biogeography of salt marsh sediments and suggest that established bacterial communities in frequently-inundated environments may be both highly resistant to invasion and resilient to some environmental shifts. However, the extent to which environmental selection impacts these communities is taxon specific and variable, highlighting the complex interplay between dispersal and environmental selection for microbial communities in nature.
In many habitats, microorganisms exhibit significant distance–decay patterns as determined by analysis of the 16S rRNA gene and various other genetic elements. However, there have been few studies that examine how the similarities of both taxonomic and functional genes co‐vary over geographic distance within a group of ecologically related microbes. Here, we determined the biogeographic patterns of the functional dissimilatory sulfite reductase gene (dsrA) and the 16S rRNA gene in sulfate‐reducing bacterial communities of US East Coast salt marsh sediments. Distance–decay, ordination and statistical analyses revealed that the distribution of 16S rRNA genes is strongly influenced by geographic distance and environmental factors, whereas the dsrA gene is not. Together, our results indicate that 16S rRNA genes are likely dispersal limited and under environmental selection, whereas dsrA genes appear randomly distributed and not selected for by any expected environmental variables. Selection, drift, dispersal and mutation are all factors that may help explain the decoupled biogeographic patterns for the two genes. These data suggest that both the taxonomic and functional elements of microbial communities should be considered in future studies of microbial biogeography to aid in our understanding of the diversity, distribution and function of microorganisms in the environment.