Interactive effects of multiple stressors revealed by sequencing total (DNA) and active (RNA) components of experimental sediment microbial communities

Simone C. Birrer*, Katherine A. Dafforn, Stuart L. Simpson, Brendan P. Kelaher, Jaimie Potts, Peter Scanes, Emma L. Johnston

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    27 Citations (Scopus)


    Coastal waterways are increasingly exposed to multiple stressors, e.g. contaminants that can be delivered via pulse or press exposures. Therefore, it is crucial that ecological impacts can be differentiated among stressors to manage ecosystem threats. We investigated microbial community development in sediments exposed to press and pulse stressors. Press exposures were created with in situ mesocosm sediments containing a range of ‘metal’ concentrations (sediment contaminated with multiple metal(loid)s) and organic enrichment (fertiliser), while the pulse exposure was simulated by a single dose of organic fertiliser. All treatments and exposure concentrations were crossed in a fully factorial field experiment. We used amplicon sequencing to compare the sensitivity of the 1) total (DNA) and active (RNA) component of 2) bacterial (16S rRNA) and eukaryotic (18S rRNA) communities to contaminant exposures. Overall microbial community change was greater when exposed to press than pulse stressors, with the bacterial community responding more strongly than the eukaryotes. The total bacterial community represents a more time-integrated measure of change and proved to be more sensitive to multiple stressors than the active community. Metals and organic enrichment treatments interacted such that the effect of metals was weaker when the sediment was organically enriched. Taxa-level analyses revealed that press enrichment resulted in potential functional changes, mainly involving nitrogen cycling. Furthermore, enrichment generally reduced the abundance of active eukaryotes in the sediment. As well as demonstrating interactive impacts of metals and organic enrichment, this study highlights the sensitivity of next-generation sequencing for ecosystem biomonitoring of interacting stressors and identifies opportunities for more targeted application.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1383-1394
    Number of pages12
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


    • Biomonitoring
    • Enrichment
    • Metals
    • Next-generation sequencing
    • Press and pulse stressors
    • Sediments


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