Temperature, pH, and hydrochemistry of terrestrial hot springs play a critical role in shaping thermal microbial communities. However, the interactions of biotic and abiotic factors at this terrestrial-aquatic interface are still not well understood on a global scale, and the question of how underground events influence microbial communities remains open. To answer this, 11 new samples obtained from the El Tatio geothermal field were analyzed by 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing (V4 region), along with 191 samples from previous publications obtained from the Taupo Volcanic Zone, the Yellowstone Plateau Volcanic Field, and the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, with their temperature, pH, and major ion concentration. Microbial alpha diversity was lower in acid-sulfate waters, and no significant correlations were found with temperature. However, moderate correlations were observed between chemical parameters such as pH (mostly constrained to temperatures below 70°C), SO 4 ²⁻ and abundances of members of the phyla Armatimonadota, Deinococcota, Chloroflexota, Campilobacterota, and Thermoplasmatota. pH and SO 4 ²⁻ gradients were explained by phase separation of sulfur-rich hydrothermal fluids and oxidation of reduced sulfur in the steam phase, which were identified as key processes shaping these communities. Ordination and permutational analysis of variance showed that temperature, pH, and major element hydrochemistry explain only 24% of the microbial community structure. Therefore, most of the variance remained unexplained, suggesting that other environmental or biotic factors are also involved and highlighting the environmental complexity of the ecosystem and its great potential to test niche theory ecological associated questions.
This is the first approach to investigate whether geothermal processes could have an influence on the ecology of thermal microbial communities on a global scale. In addition to temperature and pH, microbial communities are structured by sulfate concentrations, which depends on the tectono-magmatic settings (such as the depth of magmatic chambers) and the local settings (such as the availability of a confining layer separating NaCl waters from steam after phase separation) and the possibility of mixing with more diluted fluids. Comparison of microbial communities from different geothermal areas by homogeneous sequence processing showed that no significant geographic distance decay was detected on the microbial communities according to Bray-Curtis, Jaccard, unweighted, and weighted Unifrac similarity/dissimilarity indices. Instead, an ancient potential divergence in the same taxonomic groups is suggested between globally distant thermal zones.