Alterations to headwater stream microbial communities and carbon cycling in response to environmental change.

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Organic carbon, principally as dissolved organic matter (DOM), is a fundamental energy source that powers microbial metabolism and shapes food webs in stream ecosystems. The community structure and metabolic activity of stream microbes are significantly impacted by the quantity and quality (i.e. molecular structure) of organic matter resources. Much of the organic matter in headwater streams originates on landscapes. Thus, external inputs of terrestrial organic carbon shape microbial community structure and, subsequently, food webs of headwater streams. Despite the recognized importance of DOM, there is limited understanding of how stream organic matter resources and bacterial community structure respond to watershed urbanization.

I studied DOM quantity and quality, microbial heterotrophic function, and bacterial community composition along a gradient of watershed urbanization in headwater streams of the Parkers Creek watershed (Coastal Plain, Maryland, USA). In Chapter 1, I found that watershed impervious cover was significantly related to stream water DOM composition: increasing impervious cover was associated with decreased amounts of natural humic-like DOM and enriched amounts of anthropogenic fulvic acid-like and protein-like DOM. The DOM found in urbanized streams was more bioavailable, but only during spring and summer experiments. I report in Chapter 2 that microbial heterotrophic enzyme production was not strongly related to urbanization. Instead, enzyme levels were most strongly related to temperature and natural groundwater chemical gradients. I show in Chapter 3 that bacterial community composition and co-occurrence patterns also changed significantly in response to increasing urbanization, becoming more dominated by primary producers common to eutrophic waters.

I conclude from my research that watershed urbanization fundamentally alters microbial communities and carbon cycling in headwater streams. This urbanized material is more readily metabolized by microbial communities, but only during warmer months. Increased biodegradation of DOM in warm seasons was related to greater microbial enzyme activity, which generally responds positively to increasing temperature. Thus, rising temperatures with climate change and urbanization combined with altered organic matter content are predicted to result in greater CO2 evasion from urbanized streams.