Estimating taxon-specific population dynamics in diverse microbial communities
Understanding how population-level dynamics contribute to ecosystem-level processes is a primary focus of ecological research and has led to important breakthroughs in the ecology of macroscopic organisms. However, the inability to measure population-specific rates, such as growth, for microbial taxa within natural assemblages has limited ecologists’ understanding of how microbial populations interact to regulate ecosystem processes. Here, we use isotope incorporation within DNA molecules to model taxon-specific population growth in the presence of 18O-labeled water. By applying this model to phylogenetic marker sequencing data collected from stable-isotope probing studies, we estimate rates of growth, mortality, and turnover for individual microbial populations within soil assemblages. When summed across the entire bacterial community, our taxon-specific estimates are within the range of other whole-assemblage measurements of bacterial turnover. Because it can be applied to environmental samples, the approach we present is broadly applicable to measuring population growth, mortality, and associated biogeochemical process rates of microbial taxa for a wide range of ecosystems and can help reveal how individual microbial populations drive biogeochemical fluxes.