Response to nitrogen addition reveals metabolic and ecological strategies of soil bacteria.
Ammonia oxidation, as the first step in the nitrification process, plays a central role in the global cycling of nitrogen. Although bacteria are traditionally considered to be responsible for ammonia oxidation, a role for archaea has been suggested by data from metagenomic studies and by the isolation of a marine, autotrophic, ammonia-oxidizing, non-thermophilic crenarchaeon. Evidence for ammonia oxidation by non-thermophilic crenarchaea in marine and terrestrial environments is largely based on abundance of bacterial and archaeal ammonia monooxygenase (amo) genes, rather than activity. In this study, we have determined the influence of temperature on the response of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria and archaea in nitrifying soil microcosms using two approaches, involving analysis of transcriptional activity of 16S rRNA genes and of a key functional gene, amoA, which encodes ammonia monooxygenase subunit A. There was little evidence of changes in relative abundance or transcriptional activity of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria during nitrification. In contrast, denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis analysis of crenarchaeal 16S rRNA and crenarchaeal amoA genes provided strong evidence of changes in community structure of active archaeal ammonia oxidizers. Community structure changes were similar during incubation at different temperatures and much of the activity was due to a group of non-thermophilic crenarchaea associated with subsurface and marine environments, rather than soil. The findings suggest a role for crenarchaea in soil nitrification and that further information is required on their biogeography.