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Microbial communities mediate crucial biogeochemical, biomedical and biotechnological processes, yet our understanding of their assembly, and our ability to control its outcome, remain poor. Existing evidence presents conflicting views on whether microbial ecosystem assembly is predictable, or inherently unpredictable. We address this issue using a well-controlled laboratory model system, in which source microbial communities colonize a pristine environment to form complex, nutrient-cycling ecosystems. When the source communities colonize a novel environment, final community composition and function (as measured by redox potential) are unpredictable, although a signature of the community's previous history is maintained. However, when the source communities are pre-conditioned to their new habitat, community development is more reproducible. This situation contrasts with some studies of communities of macro-organisms, where strong selection under novel environmental conditions leads to reproducible community structure, whereas communities under weaker selection show more variability. Our results suggest that the microbial rare biosphere may have an important role in the predictability of microbial community development, and that pre-conditioning may help to reduce unpredictability in the design of microbial communities for biotechnological applications.