Nature 458, 623-626 (2 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature07840; Received 17 September 2008; Accepted 28 January 2009; Published online 8 March 2009

Initial community evenness favours functionality under selective stress

Lieven Wittebolle1,5, Massimo Marzorati1,5, Lieven Clement2, Annalisa Balloi4, Daniele Daffonchio4, Kim Heylen3, Paul De Vos3, Willy Verstraete1 & Nico Boon1

  1. LabMET, Laboratory of Microbial Ecology & Technology,
  2. BIOSTAT, Department of Applied Mathematics, Biometrics and Process Control,
  3. LM-UGent, Laboratory of Microbiology, Department of Biochemistry, Physiology and Microbiology, Ghent University, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
  4. DISTAM, Dipartimento di Scienze e Tecnologie Alimentari e Microbiologiche, Università degli Studi di Milano, 20133 Milan, Italy
  5. These authors contributed equally to this work.

Correspondence to: Nico Boon1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to N.B. (Email: nico.boon@ugent.be).

Owing to the present global biodiversity crisis, the biodiversity–stability relationship and the effect of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning have become major topics in ecology1, 2, 3. Biodiversity is a complex term that includes taxonomic, functional, spatial and temporal aspects of organismic diversity, with species richness (the number of species) and evenness (the relative abundance of species) considered among the most important measures4, 5. With few exceptions (see, for example, ref. 6), the majority of studies of biodiversity-functioning and biodiversity–stability theory have predominantly examined richness7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Here we show, using microbial microcosms, that initial community evenness is a key factor in preserving the functional stability of an ecosystem. Using experimental manipulations of both richness and initial evenness in microcosms with denitrifying bacterial communities, we found that the stability of the net ecosystem denitrification in the face of salinity stress was strongly influenced by the initial evenness of the community. Therefore, when communities are highly uneven, or there is extreme dominance by one or a few species, their functioning is less resistant to environmental stress. Further unravelling how evenness influences ecosystem processes in natural and humanized environments constitutes a major future conceptual challenge.


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