Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Spatial scaling of microbial eukaryote diversity


Patterns in the spatial distribution of organisms provide important information about mechanisms that regulate the diversity of life and the complexity of ecosystems1,2. Although microorganisms may comprise much of the Earth's biodiversity3,4 and have critical roles in biogeochemistry and ecosystem functioning5,6,7, little is known about their spatial diversification. Here we present quantitative estimates of microbial community turnover at local and regional scales using the largest spatially explicit microbial diversity data set available (> 106 sample pairs). Turnover rates were small across large geographical distances, of similar magnitude when measured within distinct habitats, and did not increase going from one vegetation type to another. The taxa–area relationship of these terrestrial microbial eukaryotes was relatively flat (slope z = 0.074) and consistent with those reported in aquatic habitats8,9. This suggests that despite high local diversity, microorganisms may have only moderate regional diversity. We show how turnover patterns can be used to project taxa–area relationships up to whole continents. Taxa dissimilarities across continents and between them would strengthen these projections. Such data do not yet exist, but would be feasible to collect.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The distance–decay of similarity for microbial fungi OTUs.
Figure 2: The projected taxa–area curve for microbial fungi.


  1. 1

    Brown, J. H. et al. The fractal nature of nature: power-laws, ecological complexity and biodiversity. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 357, 619–626 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Levin, S. The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73, 1943–1967 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Torsvik, V., Øvreås, L. & Thingstad, T. F. Prokaryotic diversity—magnitude, dynamics, and controlling factors. Science 296, 1064–1066 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Venter, J. C. et al. Environmental genome shotgun sequencing of the Sargasso Sea. Science 304, 66–74 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Wardle, D. A. in Communities and Ecosystems: Linking Aboveground and Belowground Components (eds Levin, S. A. & Horn, H. S.) (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Balser, T. C., Kinzig, A. P. & Firestone, M. K. in The Functional Consequences of Biodiversity (eds Kinzig, A. P., Pacala, S. W. & Tilman, D.) 265–293 (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Morin, P. J. & McGrady-Steed, J. Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in aquatic microbial systems: a new analysis of temporal variation and species richness-predictability relations. Oikos 104, 458–466 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Finlay, B. J. Global dispersal of free-living microbial eukaryote species. Science 296, 1061–1063 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Azovksy, A. I. Size-dependent species-area relationships in benthos: is the world more diverse for microbes? Ecography 25, 273–282 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Whittaker, R. H. Vegetation of the Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon and California. Ecol. Monogr. 30, 279–338 (1960)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Condit, R. et al. Beta-diversity in tropical forest trees. Science 295, 666–669 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Harrison, S. How natural habitat patchiness affects the distribution of diversity in Californian serpentine chaparral. Ecology 78, 1898–1906 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Nekola, J. C. & White, P. S. The distance decay of similarity in biogeography and ecology. J. Biogeogr. 26, 867–878 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Schluter, D. & Ricklefs, R. E. in Species Diversity in Ecological Communities (eds Ricklefs, R. E. & Schluter, D.) 1–12 (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993)

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Ettema, C. H. & Wardle, D. A. Spatial soil ecology. Trends Ecol. Evol. 17, 177–183 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Callaway, R. M., Thelen, G. C., Rodriguez, A. & Holben, W. E. Soil biota and exotic plant invasion. Nature 427, 731–733 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Horner-Devine, M. C., Carney, K. M. & Bohannan, B. J. M. An ecological perspective on bacterial biodiversity. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 271, 113–122 (2004)

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Ward, D. M., Ferris, M. J., Nold, S. C. & Bateson, M. M. A natural view of microbial biodiversity within hot spring cyanobacterial mat communities. Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 62, 1353–1370 (1998)

    CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Poulin, R. The decay of similarity with geographical distance in parasite communities of vertebrate hosts. J. Biogeogr. 30, 1609–1615 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Legendre, P. & Legendre, L. Numerical Ecology (Elsevier, Boston, 1998)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Harte, J., McCarthy, S., Taylor, K., Kinzig, A. & Fischer, M. L. Estimating species-area relationships from plot to landscape scale using species spatial-turnover data. Oikos 86, 45–54 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Ranjard, L. et al. Characterization of bacterial and fungal soil communities by automated ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis fingerprints: biological and methodological variability. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 67, 4479–4487 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Kent, A. D. & Triplett, E. W. Microbial communities and their interactions in soil and rhizosphere ecosystems. Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 56, 211–236 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Øvreås, L. Population and community level approaches for analysing microbial diversity in natural environments. Ecol. Lett. 3, 236–251 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Finlay, B. J., Esteban, G. V. & Fenchel, T. Protozoan diversity: converging estimates of the global number of free-living ciliate species. Protist 149, 29–37 (1998)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Oliver, I. et al. Land systems as surrogates for biodiversity in conservation planning. Ecol. Appl. 14, 485–503 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Yeates, C. & Gillings, M. Rapid purification of DNA from soil for molecular biodiversity analysis. Lett. Appl. Microbiol. 27, 49–53 (1998)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Manly, B. F. J. Randomization, Bootstrap and Monte Carlo Methods in Biology (Chapman & Hall/CRC, New York, 1997)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Oden, N. L. & Sokal, R. R. An investigation of three-matrix permutation tests. J. Classif. 9, 275–290 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Legendre, P. Comparison of permutation methods for the partial correlation and partial Mantel tests. J. Stat. Comput. Sim. 67, 37–73 (2000)

    MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank F. Ayala, E. Berlow, B. Bohannan, R. Condit, J. Harte, A. Hastings, C. Horner-Devine, J. Hughes, N. Martinez and I. Wright for comments on the manuscript, and U. Malvadkar, M. Holyoak and B. Melbourne for discussions. The authors are grateful to M. Holley and M. Raison for technical assistance with the ARISA analyses. The project was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Resource and Conservation Assessment Council of the NSW Government. J.L.G. acknowledges the NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Biological Informatics for financial support.Authors' contributions All authors contributed intellectual input to the project. The original concept, sample design and collections were carried out by A.J.H., M.W., I.O., D.B., M.D., M.G. and A.J.B. The first three authors (J.L.G., A.J.H. and M.W.) took the lead in the analysis and writing up of this work.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessica L. Green.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Photographs of the four land systems sampled in Sturt National Park. (PDF 200 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2

Diagram illustrating the sampling scheme within Sturt National Park. (PDF 258 kb)

Supplementary Methods

Details of automated rRNA intergenic spacer analysis (ARISA) molecular techniques. (DOC 39 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Green, J., Holmes, A., Westoby, M. et al. Spatial scaling of microbial eukaryote diversity. Nature 432, 747–750 (2004).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing