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Contributions of microbial biofilms to ecosystem processes in stream mesocosms


In many aquatic ecosystems, most microbes live in matrix-enclosed biofilms1,2,3 and contribute substantially to energy flow and nutrient cycling. Little is known, however, about the coupling of structure and dynamics of these biofilms to ecosystem function2. Here we show that microbial biofilms changed the physical and chemical microhabitat and contributed to ecosystem processes in 30-m-long stream mesocosms. Biofilm growth increased hydrodynamic transient storage—streamwater detained in quiescent zones, which is a major physical template for ecological processes in streams4,5—by 300% and the retention of suspended particles by 120%. In addition, by enhancing the relative uptake of organic molecules of lower bioavailability, the interplay of biofilm microarchitecture and mass transfer changed their downstream linkage. As living zones of transient storage, biofilms bring hydrodynamic retention and biochemical processing into close spatial proximity and influence biogeochemical processes and patterns in streams. Thus, biofilms are highly efficient and successful ecological communities that may also contribute to the influence that headwater streams have on rivers, estuaries and even oceans6,7 through longitudinal linkages of local biogeochemical and hydrodynamic processes.

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Figure 1: Effects of flow on biofilm structure and microarchitecture.
Figure 2
Figure 3: Temporal dynamics of the deposition velocity of suspended organic particles (a) and of the ratio between the mass transfer coefficients for arabinose and glucose (b).


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We thank T. Georgian for insights regarding experimental design and the influence of biofilms on particle deposition; S. Roberts, M. Gentile and X. Cheng for technical assistance; K. Czymmek for CLSM support; and A. I. Packman, R. Sommaruga, G. Singer and J. Blaine for critically reading the manuscript. This work was supported by grants from the Austrian FWF (T.J.B.), the US NSF (L.A.K. and J.D.N.) and the Pennswood Fund for Environmental Research (L.A.K. and J.D.N.).

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Correspondence to Tom J. Battin.

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Battin, T., Kaplan, L., Denis Newbold, J. et al. Contributions of microbial biofilms to ecosystem processes in stream mesocosms. Nature 426, 439–442 (2003).

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