Priming in the microbial landscape: Periphytic algal stimulation of litter-associated microbial decomposers
Microbial communities associated with submerged detritus in aquatic ecosystems often comprise a diverse mixture of autotrophic and heterotrophic microbes, including algae, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. Recent studies have documented increased rates of plant litter mass loss when periphytic algae are present. We conducted laboratory and field experiments to assess potential metabolic interactions between natural autotrophic and heterotrophic microbial communities inhabiting submerged decaying plant litter of Typha angustifolia and Schoenoplectus acutus. In the field, submerged plant litter was either exposed to natural sunlight or placed under experimental canopies that manipulated light availability and growth of periphytic algae. Litter was collected and returned to the laboratory, where algal photosynthesis was manipulated (light/dark incubation), while rates of bacterial and fungal growth and productivity were simultaneously quantified. Bacteria and fungi were rapidly stimulated by exposure to light, thus establishing the potential for algal priming of microbial heterotrophic decay activities. Experimental incubations of decaying litter with 14C- and 13C-bicarbonate established that inorganic C fixed by algal photosynthesis was rapidly transferred to and assimilated by heterotrophic microbial decomposers. Periphytic algal stimulation of microbial heterotrophs, especially fungal decomposers, is an important and largely unrecognized interaction within the detrital microbial landscape, which may transform our current conceptual understanding of microbial secondary production and organic matter decomposition in aquatic ecosystems.