The ecological impacts of multiple environmental stressors on coastal biofilm bacteria

Robert M.W. Ferguson*, Eoin J. O’Gorman, David J. McElroy, Boyd A. McKew, Ross A. Coleman, Mark C. Emmerson, Alex J. Dumbrell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Ecological communities are increasingly exposed to multiple interacting stressors. For example, warming directly affects the physiology of organisms, eutrophication stimulates the base of the food web, and harvesting larger organisms for human consumption dampens top-down control. These stressors often combine in the natural environment with unpredictable results. Bacterial communities in coastal ecosystems underpin marine food webs and provide many important ecosystem services (e.g. nutrient cycling and carbon fixation). Yet, how microbial communities will respond to a changing climate remains uncertain. Thus, we used marine mesocosms to examine the impacts of warming, nutrient enrichment, and altered top-predator population size structure (common shore crab) on coastal microbial biofilm communities in a crossed experimental design. Warming increased bacterial α-diversity (18% increase in species richness and 67% increase in evenness), but this was countered by a decrease in α-diversity with nutrient enrichment (14% and 21% decrease for species richness and evenness, respectively). Thus, we show some effects of these stressors could cancel each other out under climate change scenarios. Warming and top-predator population size structure both affected bacterial biofilm community composition, with warming increasing the abundance of bacteria capable of increased mineralization of dissolved and particulate organic matter, such as Flavobacteriia, Sphingobacteriia, and Cytophagia. However, the community shifts observed with warming depended on top-predator population size structure, with Sphingobacteriia increasing with smaller crabs and Cytophagia increasing with larger crabs. These changes could alter the balance between mineralization and carbon sequestration in coastal ecosystems, leading to a positive feedback loop between warming and CO2 production. Our results highlight the potential for warming to disrupt microbial communities and biogeochemical cycling in coastal ecosystems, and the importance of studying these effects in combination with other environmental stressors.

Original languageEnglish
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Early online date04 May 2021
Publication statusEarly online date - 04 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Florian D. Schneider for advice on the experimental design, and Prune le Merrer and Hanne Hetjens for help with running the experiment. This work was funded by The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Ref: NE/S000291/1, NE/L011840/1 and NE/I009280/2. David J. McElroy was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award from the University of Sydney (USYD) and further financial support came from a Paris Goodsell Grant in Aid (USYD), the Ruhm Fellowship (USYD), the Irish Marine Institute, and an Australian Bicentennial Scholarship (King’s College London). Queen’s University Belfast and Queen’s University Marine Laboratory provided infrastructure and support. The graphical abstract was created with

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • bacteria
  • Bacteroidetes
  • biofilms
  • body size
  • food webs
  • metabarcoding
  • multiple stressors
  • nutrient enrichment
  • warming
  • α-diversity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Science(all)


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