Bacteria increase arid-land soil surface temperature through the production of sunscreens.
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10373
Soil surface temperature, an important driver of terrestrial biogeochemical processes, depends strongly on soil albedo, which can be significantly modified by factors such as plant cover. In sparsely vegetated lands, the soil surface can be colonized by photosynthetic microbes that build biocrust communities. Here we use concurrent physical, biochemical and microbiological analyses to show that mature biocrusts can increase surface soil temperature by as much as 10 °C through the accumulation of large quantities of a secondary metabolite, the microbial sunscreen scytonemin, produced by a group of late-successional cyanobacteria. Scytonemin accumulation decreases soil albedo significantly. Such localized warming has apparent and immediate consequences for the soil microbiome, inducing the replacement of thermosensitive bacterial species with more thermotolerant forms. These results reveal that not only vegetation but also microorganisms are a factor in modifying terrestrial albedo, potentially impacting biosphere feedbacks on past and future climate, and call for a direct assessment of such effects at larger scales.