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Fungal decomposition of river organic matter accelerated by decreasing glacier cover

Abstract

Climate change is altering the structure and functioning of river ecosystems worldwide. In mountain rivers, glacier retreat has been shown to result in systematic changes in aquatic invertebrate biodiversity, but the effects of ice loss on other biological taxa and on whole-ecosystem functions are less well understood. Using data from mountain rivers spanning six countries on four continents, we show that decreasing glacier cover leads to consistent fungal-driven increases in the decomposition rate of cellulose, the world’s most abundant organic polymer. Cellulose decomposition rates were associated with greater abundance of aquatic fungi and the fungal cellulose-degrading Cellobiohydrolase I (cbhI) gene, illustrating the potential for predicting ecosystem-level functions from gene-level data. Clear associations between fungal genes, populations and communities and ecosystem functioning in mountain rivers indicate that ongoing global decreases in glacier cover can be expected to change vital ecosystem functions, including carbon cycle processes.

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Fig. 1: Global distribution and experimental details of glacierized mountain river sampling sites.
Fig. 2: Globally consistent relationships between catchment glacier cover, abundance of fungal biomass from cotton-strip assay fungal communities and tensile-strength loss of river-incubated cotton strips.
Fig. 3: Comparison of glacierized mountain river cellulose decomposition rates with those in other biomes.

Data availability

The raw demultiplexed sequence data have been uploaded to the NCBI Sequence Read Archive with BioProject accession number PRJNA684135. A dataset has been deposited with the NERC Environmental Information Data Centre at https://doi.org/10.5285/fec704d2-ee6a-427b-9345-850dd96ff1b4.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council Scholarship (no. NE/L002574/1) awarded to S.C.F. Additional financial support for laboratory overheads was provided to S.C.F. by the River Basin Processes and Management Cluster, School of Geography, University of Leeds. S.C.F., L.E.B. and J.L.C. received funding from INTERACT under the European Union H2020 (GLAC-REF, grant agreement no. 730938, Transnational Access) for fieldwork in Finse, Norway. Fieldwork in Ecuador was funded by the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador under project no. M13434 (PUCE 2016-2017). A.J.D. and K.C.R. were supported by a Natural Environment Research Council grant (no. NE/M02086X/1), and E.H. was funded by the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. We thank L. Füreder (Austria); the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment (research permit no. MAE-DNM-2015-0030), the Reserva Ecológica Antisana, Public Metropolitan Company of Potable Water and Sanitation of Quito (EPMAPS) and Water Projection Fund (FONAG) (Ecuador); the Parc National de la Vanoise (France); the Department of Conservation (New Zealand); and U. Fjellstyre and T. Buttingsrud (Norway) for permission to access field sites and work within protected areas. We also thank the Finse Alpine Research Centre, Obergurgl Alpine Research Centre and the Design School of the University of Leeds for the use of their field and laboratory facilities, and N. Friberg for his hospitality. For their assistance and support in the field, we thank P. Andino, R. Espinosa, P. Rosero and J. Sutherland, and S.C.F. gives special thanks to C. Fell and N. Fell.

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S.C.F. codeveloped the concept of the manuscript; completed fieldwork in Austria, New Zealand and Norway; assisted with the molecular lab work; ran the statistical analysis; created the figures (except Figs. 1 and 3) and wrote the manuscript. J.L.C. completed fieldwork in New Zealand and Norway and created Fig. 1. S.C.-F. completed fieldwork in Ecuador and France. V.C.-P. completed fieldwork in Ecuador. E.H. completed fieldwork in Alaska. K.C.R. led the molecular sample preparation and PCR and qPCR analysis, and contributed text to the ‘Molecular methods’ section. K.J.M.N. assisted in the molecular sample preparation. A.J.D. developed the analytical protocol for the molecular sample analysis, ran the NGS, formatted the subsequent data for analysis, advised on statistical and ecoinformatic analysis and contributed text to the ‘Molecular methods’ section. S.D.T. developed and advised on the use of the cotton-strip assay protocol, provided data for Fig. 3 and Supplementary Fig. 4, and contributed text regarding the use of the cotton-strip assay. L.E.B. codeveloped the concept of the manuscript, completed fieldwork in Austria and Norway, advised on statistical analysis and the production of all figures, created Fig. 3 and provided detailed comments on the manuscript. All authors edited and revised the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lee E. Brown.

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Fell, S.C., Carrivick, J.L., Cauvy-Fraunié, S. et al. Fungal decomposition of river organic matter accelerated by decreasing glacier cover. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 349–353 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01004-x

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