Nitrification is a central component of the global nitrogen cycle. Ammonia oxidation, the first step of nitrification, is performed in terrestrial ecosystems by both ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA). Published studies indicate that soil pH may be a critical factor controlling the relative abundances of AOA and AOB communities. In order to determine the relative contributions of AOA and AOB to ammonia oxidation in two agricultural acidic Scottish soils (pH 4.5 and 6), the influence of acetylene (a nitrification inhibitor) was investigated during incubation of soil microcosms at 20 °C for 1 month. High rates of nitrification were observed in both soils in the absence of acetylene. Quantification of respective amoA genes (a key functional gene for ammonia oxidizers) demonstrated significant growth of AOA, but not AOB. A significant positive relationship was found between nitrification rate and AOA, but not AOB growth. AOA growth was inhibited in the acetylene-containing microcosms. Moreover, AOA transcriptional activity decreased significantly in the acetylene-containing microcosms compared with the control, whereas no difference was observed for the AOB transcriptional activity. Consequently, growth and activity of only archaeal but not bacterial ammonia oxidizer communities strongly suggest that AOA, but not AOB, control nitrification in these two acidic soils.
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