Bacterial contributions to delignification and lignocellulose degradation in forest soils with metagenomic and quantitative stable isotope probing


Delignification, or lignin-modification, facilitates the decomposition of lignocellulose in woody plant biomass. The extant diversity of lignin-degrading bacteria and fungi is underestimated by culture-dependent methods, limiting our understanding of the functional and ecological traits of decomposers populations. Here, we describe the use of stable isotope probing (SIP) coupled with amplicon and shotgun metagenomics to identify and characterize the functional attributes of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose-degrading fungi and bacteria in coniferous forest soils from across North America. We tested the extent to which catabolic genes partitioned among different decomposer taxa; the relative roles of bacteria and fungi, and whether taxa or catabolic genes correlated with variation in lignocellulolytic activity, measured as the total assimilation of 13C-label into DNA and phospholipid fatty acids. We found high overall bacterial degradation of our model lignin substrate, particularly by gram-negative bacteria (Comamonadaceae and Caulobacteraceae), while fungi were more prominent in cellulose-degradation. Very few taxa incorporated 13C-label from more than one lignocellulosic polymer, suggesting specialization among decomposers. Collectively, members of Caulobacteraceae could degrade all three lignocellulosic polymers, providing new evidence for their importance in lignocellulose degradation. Variation in lignin-degrading activity was better explained by microbial community properties, such as catabolic gene content and community structure, than cellulose-degrading activity. SIP significantly improved shotgun metagenome assembly resulting in the recovery of several high-quality draft metagenome-assembled genomes and over 7500 contigs containing unique clusters of carbohydrate-active genes. These results improve understanding of which organisms, conditions and corresponding functional genes contribute to lignocellulose decomposition.