Persisting responses of salt marsh fungal communities to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

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The plant microbiome, composed of diverse interacting microorganisms, is thought to undergird host integrity and well-being. Though it is well understood that environmental perturbations like oil pollution can alter the diversity and composition of microbiomes, remarkably little is known about how disturbance alters plant-fungal associations. Using Next-Generation sequencing of the 18S rDNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS1) region, we examined outcomes of enduring oil exposure on aboveground leaf and belowground endophytic root and rhizosphere fungal communities of Spartina alterniflora, a highly valued ecosystem engineer in southeastern Louisiana marshes affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident. We found that aboveground foliar fungal communities exhibited site-dependent compositional turnover with consequent loss in diversity according to oiling history. Rhizosphere soil communities also exhibited shifts in community composition associated with oiling history, whereas root endophytic communities did not. Oiling did not increase or decrease similarities among aboveground and belowground communities within an individual host, indicating that host plant characteristics exert stronger control than external factors on fungal community composition. These results show that fungal community responses to oiling vary within tissues of the same host plant, and that differences in the local environment, or alternatively, site-specific differences in residual oil constrain the magnitude of exposure responses. Our study offers novel perspectives on how environmental contaminants and perturbations can influence plant microbiomes, highlighting the importance of assessing long-term ecological outcomes of oil pollution to better understand how shifts in microbial communities influence plant performance and ecosystem function. Our findings are relevant to coastal management programs tasked with responding to oil spills and increasing pressures arising from intensifying development and climate change. Understanding how modification of plant-microbiome associations influences plant performance, particularly of ecosystem engineers like S. alterniflora, can help guide efforts to protect and restore at-risk coastal ecosystems.

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The Science of the total environment

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