In my time as a microbiology student, the nitrogen cycle was a staple of introductory microbiology classes (as it still is), and we all learned that nitrification, the process of converting harmful ammonia into less toxic nitrate was carried out by Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter and that kept our goldfish alive.
Whaddya know? 30 years later I find out that … like many of the things we thought we knew back then … that was wrong.
Aquarium Nitrification Revisited: Thaumarchaeota Are the Dominant Ammonia Oxidizers in Freshwater Aquarium Biofilters. 2011 PLoS ONE 6(8): e23281. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023281
Ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) outnumber ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) in many terrestrial and aquatic environments. Although nitrification is the primary function of aquarium biofilters, very few studies have investigated the microorganisms responsible for this process in aquaria. This study used quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) to quantify the ammonia monooxygenase (amoA) and 16S rRNA genes of Bacteria and Thaumarchaeota in freshwater aquarium biofilters, in addition to assessing the diversity of AOA amoA genes by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) and clone libraries. AOA were numerically dominant in 23 of 27 freshwater biofilters, and in 12 of these biofilters AOA contributed all detectable amoA genes. Eight saltwater aquaria and two commercial aquarium nitrifier supplements were included for comparison. Both thaumarchaeal and bacterial amoA genes were detected in all saltwater samples, with AOA genes outnumbering AOB genes in five of eight biofilters. Bacterial amoA genes were abundant in both supplements, but thaumarchaeal amoA and 16S rRNA genes could not be detected. For freshwater aquaria, the proportion of amoA genes from AOA relative to AOB was inversely correlated with ammonium concentration. DGGE of AOA amoA genes revealed variable diversity across samples, with nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) indicating separation of freshwater and saltwater fingerprints. Composite clone libraries of AOA amoA genes revealed distinct freshwater and saltwater clusters, as well as mixed clusters containing both freshwater and saltwater amoA gene sequences. These results reveal insight into commonplace residential biofilters and suggest that aquarium biofilters may represent valuable biofilm microcosms for future studies of AOA ecology.