Microbial residence time is a controlling parameter of the taxonomic composition and functional profile of microbial communities

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A remaining challenge within microbial ecology is to understand the determinants of richness and diversity observed in environmental microbial communities. In a range of systems, including activated sludge bioreactors, the microbial residence time (MRT) has been previously shown to shape the microbial community composition. However, the physiological and ecological mechanisms driving this influence have remained unclear. Here, this relationship is explored by analyzing an activated sludge system fed with municipal wastewater. Using a model designed in this study based on Monod-growth kinetics, longer MRTs were shown to increase the range of growth parameters that enable persistence, resulting in increased richness and diversity in the modeled community. In laboratory experiments, six sequencing batch reactors treating domestic wastewater were operated in parallel at MRTs between 1 and 15 days. The communities were characterized using both 16S ribosomal RNA and non-target messenger RNA sequencing (metatranscriptomic analysis), and model-predicted monotonic increases in richness were confirmed in both profiles. Accordingly, taxonomic Shannon diversity also increased with MRT. In contrast, the diversity in enzyme class annotations resulting from the metatranscriptomic analysis displayed a non-monotonic trend over the MRT gradient. Disproportionately high abundances of transcripts encoding for rarer enzymes occur at longer MRTs and lead to the disconnect between taxonomic and functional diversity profiles.

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Data produced and analyzed in this paper were generated in collaboration with the Genetic Diversity Centre (GDC), ETH Zurich, Switzerland and the Genomics Facility at the University of Basel, Switzerland. We thank the operators and the staff of the WWTP ARA Niederglatt for providing activated sludge. We acknowledge financial support from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (ERC grant agreement no. 614768, PROduCTS). We also thank Dr. Paola Meynet for assistance in the preparation of the 16S control libraries.

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Correspondence to Cresten Mansfeldt.

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