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Soil Biology & Biochemistry

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In desert ecosystems, belowground characteristics are influenced chiefly by the formation and persistence of “shrub-islands of fertility” in contrast to barren plant interspaces. If soil microbial communities are exclusively compared between these two biogeochemically distinct soil types, the impact of characteristics altered by shrub species, especially soil C and N, are likely to be overemphasized and overshadow the role of other characteristics in structuring microbial composition. To determine how belowground characteristics influence microbial community composition, and if the relative importance of these characteristics shifts across the landscape (i.e., between and within shrub and interspace soils), changes in microbial communities across a 3000-year cold desert chronosequence were related to 27 belowground characteristics in surface and subsurface soils. When shrub and interspace communities in surface and subsurface soils were combined across the entire chronosequence, communities differed and were primarily influenced by soil C, NO3− concentrations, bulk density, pH, and root presence. Within shrub soils, microbial communities were shrub species-specific, especially in surface soils, highlighting differences in soil characteristics created by specific shrub species and/or similarity in stresses structuring shrub species and microbial communities alike. Microbial communities in shrub soils were not influenced by soil C, but by NO3− and NH4+ concentrations, pH, and silt in surface soils; and Cl, P, soil N, and NO3−concentrations in subsurface soils. Interspace soil communities were distinct across the chronosequence at both depths and were strongly influenced by dune development. Interspace communities were primarily associated with soil stresses (i.e., high B and Cl concentrations), which decreased with dune development. The distribution of Gram-positive bacteria, Actinobacteria, and fungi highlighted community differences between and within shrub and interspace soils, while Gram-negative bacteria were common in all soils across the chronosequence. Of the 27 belowground characteristics investigated, 13 separated shrub from interspace communities, and of those, only five emerged as factors influencing community composition within shrub and interspace soils. As dunes develop across this cold desert chronosequence, microbial community composition was not regulated primarily by soil C, but by N and P availability and soil stresses in shrub soils, and exclusively by soil stresses in interspace soils.