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Summary

The paradigm that soil microbial communities, being very diverse, have high functional redundancy levels, so that erosion of microbial diversity is less important for ecosystem functioning than erosion of plant or animal diversity, is often taken for granted. However, this has only been demonstrated for decomposition/respiration functions, performed by a large proportion of the total microbial community, but not for specialized microbial groups. Here, we determined the impact of a decrease in soil microbial diversity on soil ecosystem processes using a removal approach, in which less abundant species were removed preferentially. This was achieved by inoculation of sterile soil microcosms with serial dilutions of a suspension obtained from the same non-sterile soil and subsequent incubation, to enable recovery of community size. The sensitivity to diversity erosion was evaluated for three microbial functional groups with known contrasting taxonomic diversities (ammonia oxidizers < denitrifiers < heterotrophs). Diversity erosion within each functional group was characterized using molecular fingerprinting techniques: ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis (RISA) for the eubacterial community, denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) analysis of nirK genes for denitrifiers, and DGGE analysis of 16S rRNA genes for betaproteobacterial ammonia oxidizers. In addition, we simulated the impact of the removal approach by dilution on the number of soil bacterial species remaining in the inoculum using values of abundance distribution of bacterial species reported in the literature. The reduction of the diversity of the functional groups observed from genetic fingerprints did not impair the associated functioning of these groups, i.e. carbon mineralization, denitrification and nitrification. This was remarkable, because the amplitude of diversity erosion generated by the dilution approach was huge (level of bacterial species loss was estimated to be around 99.99% for the highest dilution). Our results demonstrate that the vast diversity of the soil microbiota makes soil ecosystem functioning largely insensitive to biodiversity erosion even for functions performed by specialized groups.