NCEAS Project 12316

Biogeography of Microorganisms: From Taxonomy to Traits

  • Brendan J.M. Bohannan
  • Jessica L. Green
  • Ian J. Wright

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Microorganisms represent the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity and they play a crucialrole in nearly every process of environmental importance, yet only recently have we begun to understandthe distribution of microbial life. The field of microbial biogeography has grown enormously in the past 5 years, in large part due to the influence of a previous NCEAS working group. The study of microbialbiogeography initially adopted a taxonomic approach, focusing on sequence signatures to identify groupsof microorganisms, and using these signatures to reveal patterning in microbial biodiversity. These studies revealed classic biogeographical patterns such as the species-area relationship and isolation by distance. However the field of biogeography is changing. There is a resurging interest in understanding patterns in the distribution of not only taxa, but also the traits those taxa possess. Patterns in trait variation can be used to understand complex phenomena, including why organisms live where they do, how manytaxa can coexist in a place, and how they will respond to environmental change. Technological advancessuch as environmental genomics place microbial ecology in a unique position to move trait-based biogeography forward. The proposed working group will bring together microbiologists who are gathering microbial biodiversity and trait data with general ecologists who are developing theory toexplain and predict patterns of trait variation. The group will identify important traits in microbial biodiversity data, develop predictions regarding the distribution of such traits, and document patterns in trait-based microbial biogeography. The products of the proposed working group will not only benefitthe general studies of ecology, microbiology and biogeography. They will also contribute to our understanding of the response of ecological systems to environmental change and will provide importantfoundational knowledge that can guide microbial bioprospecting, the search for biomolecules of pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial importance.