Comparison of Rock Varnish Bacterial Communities with Surrounding Non-Varnished Rock Surfaces: Taxon-Specific Analysis and Morphological Description
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Rock varnish is a thin layer of Fe and Mn oxyhydroxides with embedded clay minerals that contain an increased Mn/Fe ratio compared to that of the Earth's crust. Even if the study of rock varnish has important implications in several fields, the composition of epilithic bacterial communities and the distribution of taxa on varnish surfaces are still not wholly described. The aim of this study was (i) to identify the bacterial taxa which show the greatest variation between varnish and non-varnish environments, collected from the same rock, and (ii) to describe the morphology of epilithic communities through scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Triplicate samples of rock surfaces with varnish and triplicate samples without varnish were collected from five sites in Matsch Valley (South Tyrol, Italy). The V4 region of 16S rRNA gene was analyzed by Illumina sequencing. Fifty-five ubiquitous taxa have been examined to assess variation between varnish and non-varnish. Cyanobacteria, Chloroflexi, Proteobacteria along with minor taxa such as Solirubrobacterales, Conexibaxter, and Rhodopila showed significant variations of abundance, diversity, or both responding to the ecology (presence/absence of varnish). Other taxa, such as the genus Edaphobacter, showed a more marked spatial variation responding to the sampling site. SEM images showed a multitude of bacterial morphologies and structures involved in the process of attachment and creation of a suitable environment for growth. The features emerging from this analysis suggest that the highly oxidative Fe and Mn-rich varnish environment favors anoxigenic autotrophy and establishment of highly specialized bacteria.