Kinetic analysis of a complete nitrifier reveals an oligotrophic lifestyle

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Nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia (NH3) via nitrite (NO2) to nitrate (NO3), is a key process of the biogeochemical nitrogen cycle. For decades, ammonia and nitrite oxidation were thought to be separately catalysed by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and archaea (AOA), and by nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB). The recent discovery of complete ammonia oxidizers (comammox) in the NOB genusNitrospira1,2, which alone convert ammonia to nitrate, raised questions about the ecological niches in which comammoxNitrospirasuccessfully compete with canonical nitrifiers. Here we isolate a pure culture of a comammox bacterium,Nitrospira inopinata, and show that it is adapted to slow growth in oligotrophic and dynamic habitats on the basis of a high affinity for ammonia, low maximum rate of ammonia oxidation, high growth yield compared to canonical nitrifiers, and genomic potential for alternative metabolisms. The nitrification kinetics of four AOA from soil and hot springs were determined for comparison. Their surprisingly poor substrate affinities and lower growth yields reveal that, in contrast to earlier assumptions, AOA are not necessarily the most competitive ammonia oxidizers present in strongly oligotrophic environments and thatN. inopinatahas the highest substrate affinity of all analysed ammonia oxidizer isolates except the marine AOANitrosopumilus maritimusSCM1 (ref.3). These results suggest a role for comammox organisms in nitrification under oligotrophic and dynamic conditions.

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