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ISME J. 2013 Aug;7(8):1620-31. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.35. Epub 2013 Mar 7.

Nitrification rates in Arctic soils are associated with functionally distinct populations of ammonia-oxidizing archaea.

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Department of Genetics in Ecology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


The functioning of Arctic soil ecosystems is crucially important for global climate, and basic knowledge regarding their biogeochemical processes is lacking. Nitrogen (N) is the major limiting nutrient in these environments, and its availability is strongly dependent on nitrification. However, microbial communities driving this process remain largely uncharacterized in Arctic soils, namely those catalyzing the rate-limiting step of ammonia (NH3) oxidation. Eleven Arctic soils were analyzed through a polyphasic approach, integrating determination of gross nitrification rates, qualitative and quantitative marker gene analyses of ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) and enrichment of AOA in laboratory cultures. AOA were the only NH3 oxidizers detected in five out of 11 soils and outnumbered AOB in four of the remaining six soils. The AOA identified showed great phylogenetic diversity and a multifactorial association with the soil properties, reflecting an overall distribution associated with tundra type and with several physico-chemical parameters combined. Remarkably, the different gross nitrification rates between soils were associated with five distinct AOA clades, representing the great majority of known AOA diversity in soils, which suggests differences in their nitrifying potential. This was supported by selective enrichment of two of these clades in cultures with different NH3 oxidation rates. In addition, the enrichments provided the first direct evidence for NH3 oxidation by an AOA from an uncharacterized Thaumarchaeota-AOA lineage. Our results indicate that AOA are functionally heterogeneous and that the selection of distinct AOA populations by the environment can be a determinant for nitrification activity and N availability in soils.

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