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Environ Microbiol. 2003 May;5(5):355-69.

Structure and activity of multiple nitrifying bacterial populations co-existing in a biofilm.

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Department of Molecular Ecology, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Celsiusstrasse 1, D-28359 Bremen, Germany.


A biofilm from a nitrifying pilot-scale sequencing batch reactor was investigated for effects of varying process conditions on its microscale activity and structure. Microsensor measurements of oxygen, substrates and products of nitrification were applied under incubation at different ammonium and oxygen concentrations which reflected various situations during a treatment cycle. A high net N loss was observed under high ammonium (HA) concentrations in contrast to low ones. Additionally, results indicated inhibition of nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB), but not of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) by free ammonia under HA conditions. Diversity, spatial distribution, and abundance of nitrifying bacteria as analysed by fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) revealed six different nitrifying populations with heterogeneous distributions. Nitrosococcus mobilis formed conspicuous microcolonies locally surrounded by cells of the dominating N. europaea/eutropha-related AOB population. A third less abundant population was affiliated to N. oligotropha. Nitrite-oxidizing bacteria of the genera Nitrobacter and Nitrospira (with at least two distinct populations) showed a large scale heterogeneity in their distribution. Nitrospira spp. were also found in deeper inactive layers where they might persist rather than thrive, and act as seed population when detached. Results of functional and structural analyses are discussed with respect to specific niches of individual populations in this system.

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