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Background: Changes in aboveground community composition and diversity following shrub encroachment have been studied extensively. Recently, shrub encroachment was associated with differences in belowground bacterial communities relative to non-encroached grassland sites hundreds of meters away. This spatial distance between grassland and shrub sites left open the question of how soil bacterial communities associated with different vegetation types might differ within the same plot location.

Methods: We examined soil bacterial communities between shrub-encroached and adjacent (one m apart) grassland soils in Chinese Inner Mongolian, using high-throughput sequencing method (Illumina, San Diego, CA, USA).

Results: Shrub-encroached sites were associated with dramatic restructuring of soil bacterial community composition and predicted metabolic function, with significant increase in bacterial alpha-diversity. Moreover, bacterial phylogenic structures showed clustering in both shrub-encroached and grassland soils, suggesting that each vegetation type was associated with a unique and defined bacterial community by niche filtering. Finally, soil organic carbon (SOC) was the primary driver varied with shifts in soil bacterial community composition. The encroachment was associated with elevated SOC, suggesting that shrub-mediated shifts in SOC might be responsible for changes in belowground bacterial community.

Discussion: This study demonstrated that shrub-encroached soils were associated with dramatic restructuring of bacterial communities, suggesting that belowground bacterial communities appear to be sensitive indicators of vegetation type. Our study indicates that the increased shrub-encroached intensity in Inner Mongolia will likely trigger large-scale disruptions in both aboveground plant and belowground bacterial communities across the region.


Institute for Systems Biology