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Summary

There is ample evidence that microbial processes can exhibit large variations in activity on a field scale. However, very little is known about the spatial distribution of the microbial communities mediating these processes. Here we used geostatistical modelling to explore spatial patterns of size and activity of the denitrifying community, a functional guild involved in N-cycling, in a grassland field subjected to different cattle grazing regimes. We observed a non-random distribution pattern of the size of the denitrifier community estimated by quantification of the denitrification genes copy numbers with a macro-scale spatial dependence (6–16 m) and mapped the distribution of this functional guild in the field. The spatial patterns of soil properties, which were strongly affected by presence of cattle, imposed significant control on potential denitrification activity, potential N2O production and relative abundance of some denitrification genes but not on the size of the denitrifier community. Absolute abundance of most denitrification genes was not correlated with the distribution patterns of potential denitrification activity or potential N2O production. However, the relative abundance of bacteria possessing the nosZ gene encoding the N2O reductase in the total bacterial community was a strong predictor of the N2O/(N2 + N2O) ratio, which provides evidence for a relationship between bacterial community composition based on the relative abundance of denitrifiers in the total bacterial community and ecosystem processes. More generally, the presented geostatistical approach allows integrated mapping of microbial communities, and hence can facilitate our understanding of relationships between the ecology of microbial communities and microbial processes along environmental gradients.