Biodiversity-function relationships in methanogenic communities.

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Methanogenic communities play a crucial role in carbon cycling and biotechnology (anaerobic digestion), but our understanding of how their diversity, or composition in general, determines the rate of methane production is very limited. Studies to date have been correlational because of the difficulty in cultivating their constituent species in pure culture. Here, we investigate the causal link between methanogenesis and diversity in laboratory anaerobic digesters by experimentally manipulating the diversity of cultures by dilution and subsequent equilibration of biomass. This process necessarily leads to the loss of the rarer species from communities. We find a positive relationship between methane production and the number of taxa, with little evidence of functional saturation, suggesting that rare species play an important role in methane-producing communities. No correlations were found between the initial composition and methane production across natural communities, but a positive relationship between species richness and methane production emerged following ecological selection imposed by the laboratory conditions. Our data suggest methanogenic communities show little functional redundancy, and hence, any loss of diversity-both natural and resulting from changes in propagation conditions during anaerobic digestion-is likely to reduce methane production.