In marine ecosystems, Thaumarchaeota are most likely the major ammonia oxidizers. While ammonia concentrations vary by about two orders of magnitude in the oceanic water column, archaeal ammonia oxidizers (AOA) vary by only one order of magnitude from surface to bathypelagic waters. Thus, the question arises whether the key enzyme responsible for ammonia oxidation, ammonia monooxygenase (amo), exhibits different affinities to ammonia along the oceanic water column and consequently, whether there are different ecotypes of AOA present in the oceanic water column. We determined the abundance and phylogeny of AOA based on their amoA gene. Two ecotypes of AOA exhibited a distribution pattern reflecting the reported availability of ammonia and the physico-chemical conditions throughout the Atlantic, and from epi- to bathypelagic waters. The distinction between these two ecotypes was not only detectable at the nucleotide level. Consistent changes were also detected at the amino acid level. These changes include substitutions of polar to hydrophobic amino acid, and glycine substitutions that could have an effect on the configuration of the amo protein and thus, on its activity. Although we cannot identify the specific effect, the ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous substitutions (dN/dS) between the two ecotypes indicates a strong positive selection between them. Consequently, our results point to a certain degree of environmental selection on these two ecotypes that have led to their niche specialization.
Keywords: Thaumarchaeota; ammonia oxidizers; deep ocean; ecotypes; high ammonia; low ammonia.