BACKGROUND: Coastal aquatic ecosystems include chemically distinct, but highly interconnected environments. Across a freshwater-to-marine transect, aquatic communities are exposed to large variations in salinity and nutrient availability as tidal cycles create periodic fluctuations in local conditions. These factors are predicted to strongly influence the resident microbial community structure and functioning, and alter the structure of aquatic food webs and biogeochemical cycles. Nevertheless, little is known about the spatial distribution of metabolic properties across salinity gradients, and no study has simultaneously surveyed the sediment and water environments. Here, we determined patterns and drivers of benthic and planktonic prokaryotic and microeukaryotic community assembly across a river and tidal lagoon system by collecting sediments and planktonic biomass at nine shallow subtidal sites in the summer. Genomic and transcriptomic analyses, alongside a suite of complementary geochemical data, were used to determine patterns in the distribution of taxa, mechanisms of salt tolerance, and nutrient cycling.
RESULTS: Taxonomic and metabolic profiles related to salt tolerance and nutrient cycling of the aquatic microbiome were found to decrease in similarity with increasing salinity, and distinct trends in diversity were observed between the water column and sediment. Non-saline and saline communities adopted divergent strategies for osmoregulation, with an increase in osmoregulation-related transcript expression as salinity increased in the water column due to lineage-specific adaptations to salt tolerance. Results indicated a transition from phosphate limitation in freshwater habitats to nutrient-rich conditions in the brackish zone, where distinct carbon, nitrogen and sulfur cycling processes dominated. Phosphorus acquisition-related activity was highest in the freshwater zone, along with dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium in freshwater sediment. Activity associated with denitrification, sulfur metabolism and photosynthesis were instead highest in the brackish zone, where photosynthesis was dominated by distinct microeukaryotes in water (Cryptophyta) and sediment (diatoms). Despite microeukaryotes and archaea being rare relative to bacteria, results indicate that they contributed more to photosynthesis and ammonia oxidation, respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: Our study demonstrates clear freshwater-saline and sediment-water ecosystem boundaries in an interconnected coastal aquatic system and provides a framework for understanding the relative importance of salinity, planktonic-versus-benthic habitats and nutrient availability in shaping aquatic microbial metabolic processes, particularly in tidal lagoon systems. Video abstract.