About MicrObs


Since the industrial revolution, human activities such as land-use, over-exploitation of natural resources, burning of fossil fuels and pollution, are changing global ecosystems and causing an accelerating loss in biodiversity. Contemporary climate change is an important part of this mechanism. Mountain areas are especially sensitive to the impact of climate change, because their steep altitude gradients create pronounced local climate zones in short distances (such as the tree line). Small variations in climate can cause rapid displacements of these boundaries and impact the functioning of the local ecosystem. Because mountain areas are important carbon sinks, these changes may also have global effects, such as changes in carbon flux between the atmosphere and the terrestrial biosphere, which might accelerate or slow down global climate change.

Several studies have shown recent changes in the composition and distribution of biological communities, caused by climate change. Most of these studies deal with plants or animals. However, microorganisms, including bacteria, archaea, fungi and microbial eukaryotes, are also important players in the soil ecosystem, often adapting faster to changing environmental conditions and directly influence plant communities. This makes microorganisms ideal as indicators for soil and ecosystem health. Yet, relatively little is known about how climate change impacts the soil microbial communities.

The Microbial Observatory

Through the projects MicrObs and Behatoki, hosted at the Soil Microbial Ecology Group (SMEG) of NEIKER-Tecnalia, a microbial observatory was established along an altitude gradient in the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, located in the Pyrenees. The aim of this observatory is to monitor how the properties of the soil microbial community changes with temperature along the altitude gradient, as well as other factors like pH, nutrient availability, weather patterns and random heterogeneity. By studying the diversity, composition and function along this gradient, the aim is to predict how future changes in climate can impact mountain ecosystems like the one studied, on a global as well as local level.

Sampling stations of the MicrObs Microbial Observatory

Until recently, in-depth studies of microbial community composition in natural environments have been held back by technological limitations. Advancements in molecular analysis methods, mainly DNAsequencing, now allow them. MicrObs takes advantage of this, currently using the Illumina MiSeq sequencing platform. Preliminary data (approximately 100 samples) suggests high levels of local heterogeneity, but show promising results for the general approach.

Sampling of the Microbial Observatory

Soil transplanted to lower altitude
The MicrObs observatory consist of twelve sampling stations along an altitude gradient spanning from 1,500 – 2,600 m. Since the establishment of the observatory in 2011, samples have been collected yearly in late August or early September, and is planned to continue indefinitely, given sufficient funding. Several samples have also been taken at other times in the year, earlier and later during the summer, during the late autumn and late spring, above and under snow cover. Together with temperature data, measured continuously at all sampling stations, this allows us to study the temporal dynamics of the microbial community throughout the year, as well as changes from one year to another. To simulate the effect of climate change, transplantation experiments have also been done, moving soil from higher to lower altitudes and studying the change in community structure and function after one and two years. Spatial replicates have also been collected, including a grid experiment, to study the spatial heterogeneity of the microbial communities.


MicrObs is funded by the European Union through a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship and by a grant from the Basque Government. The project is hosted at NEIKER-Tecnalia - the Basque Institute for Agricultural Research and Development.

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