Desert areas occupy approximately 25% of total land area and are
characterized by scarce precipitation, poor soil conditions, and a harsh
ecological environment. Desertification may result in the loss of unique
biological resources. Therefore, exploring the biodiversity of deserts
and the causal factors of desertification is necessary to develop future
solutions to global desertification. The desert area in northwest China
is an important part of the arid zone of central Asia as it was traveled
during the ancient Silk Road and witnessed the rise and fall of many
civilizations, making it an ideal location for desertification research.
This study utilized environmental DNA in the surface soil along the
eastern part of the Silk Road and DNA metabarcoding technology.
Bioinformatic analysis identified 782 plant species belonging to 505
genera and 133 families, and plant species diversity gradually decreased
from east to west along the Silk Road. Temperature, altitude, and
longitude were the main factors affecting plant species diversity in the
area, while the impact of precipitation was relatively small.
Correlation analysis between species diversity, population density, and
major human settlements revealed that human activity significantly
affected plant species diversity. Our study successfully used
environmental DNA and metabarcoding technology to reveal the plant
species diversity and its influencing factors for a large-scale desert
area, which will provide a fundamental and theoretical basis for desert
management and biodiversity protection.