The discovery of ammonia-oxidizing mesophilic and thermophilic Group I archaea changed the century-old paradigm that aerobic ammonia oxidation is solely mediated by two small clades of Beta- and Gammaproteobacteria. Group I archaea are extremely diverse and ubiquitous in marine and terrestrial environments, accounting for 20-30% of the microbial plankton in the global oceans. Recent studies indicated that many of these organisms carry putative ammonia monooxygenase genes and are more abundant than ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in most natural environments suggesting a potentially significant role in the nitrogen cycle. The isolation of Nitrosopumilus maritimus strain SCM1 provided the first direct evidence that Group I archaea indeed gain energy from ammonia oxidation. To characterize the physiology of this archaeal nitrifier, we developed a respirometry setup particularly suited for activity measurements in dilute microbial cultures with extremely low oxygen uptake rates. Here, we describe the setup and review the kinetic experiments conducted with N. maritimus and other nitrifying microorganisms. These experiments demonstrated that N. maritimus is adapted to grow on ammonia concentrations found in oligotrophic open ocean environments, far below the survival threshold of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. The described setup and experimental procedures should facilitate physiological studies on other nitrifying archaea and oligotrophic microorganisms in general.
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