Impact of River Channel Lateral Migration on Microbial Communities across a Discontinuous Permafrost Floodplain

Madison M. Douglas, Usha F. Lingappa, Michael P. Lamb, Joel C. Rowland, A. Joshua West, Gen Li, Preston C. Kemeny, Austin J. Chadwick, Anastasia Piliouras, Jon Schwenk, Woodward W. Fischer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Permafrost soils store approximately twice the amount of carbon currently present in Earth's atmosphere and are acutely impacted by climate change due to the polar amplification of increasing global temperature. Many organic-rich permafrost sediments are located on large river floodplains, where river channel migration periodically erodes and redeposits the upper tens of meters of sediment. Channel migration exerts a first-order control on the geographic distribution of permafrost and floodplain stratigraphy and thus may affect microbial habitats. To examine how river channel migration in discontinuous permafrost environments affects microbial community composition, we used amplicon sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene on sediment samples from floodplain cores and exposed riverbanks along the Koyukuk River, a large tributary of the Yukon River in west-central Alaska. Microbial communities are sensitive to permafrost thaw: communities found in deep samples thawed by the river closely resembled near-surface active-layer communities in nonmetric multidimensional scaling analyses but did not resemble floodplain permafrost communities at the same depth. Microbial communities also displayed lower diversity and evenness in permafrost than in both the active layer and permafrost-free point bars recently deposited by river channel migration. Taxonomic assignments based on 16S and quantitative PCR for the methyl coenzyme M reductase functional gene demonstrated that methanogens and methanotrophs are abundant in older permafrost-bearing deposits but not in younger, nonpermafrost point bar deposits. The results suggested that river migration, which regulates the distribution of permafrost, also modulates the distribution of microbes potentially capable of producing and consuming methane on the Koyukuk River floodplain. IMPORTANCE Arctic lowlands contain large quantities of soil organic carbon that is currently sequestered in permafrost. With rising temperatures, permafrost thaw may allow this carbon to be consumed by microbial communities and released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. We used gene sequencing to determine the microbial communities present in the floodplain of a river running through discontinuous permafrost. We found that the river's lateral movement across its floodplain influences the occurrence of certain microbial communities—in particular, methane-cycling microbes were present on the older, permafrost-bearing eroding riverbank but absent on the newly deposited river bars. Riverbank sediment had microbial communities more similar to those of the floodplain active-layer samples than permafrost samples from the same depth. Therefore, spatial patterns of river migration influence the distribution of microbial taxa relevant to the warming Arctic climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number20
StatePublished - Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Ecology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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