Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
Research article
14 Mar 2013
Research article |  | 14 Mar 2013

Nitrification and growth of autotrophic nitrifying bacteria and Thaumarchaeota in the coastal North Sea

B. Veuger, A. Pitcher, S. Schouten, J. S. Sinninghe Damsté, and J. J. Middelburg

Abstract. Nitrification and the associated growth of autotrophic nitrifiers, as well as the contributions of bacteria and Thaumarchaeota to total autotrophic C-fixation by nitrifiers were investigated in the Dutch coastal North Sea from October 2007 to March 2008. Rates of nitrification were determined by incubation of water samples with 15N-ammonium and growth of autotrophic nitrifiers was measured by incubation with 13C-DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon) in the presence and absence of nitrification inhibitors (nitrapyrin and chlorate) in combination with compound-specific stable isotope (13C) analysis of bacterial and Thaumarchaeotal lipid biomarkers. Net nitrification during the sampling period was evident from the concentration dynamics of ammonium, nitrite and nitrate. Measured nitrification rates were high (41–221 nmol N L−1 h−1). Ammonium assimilation was always substantially lower than nitrification – with nitrification on average contributing 89% (range 73–97%) to total ammonium consumption.

13C-DIC fixation into bacterial and Thaumarchaeotal lipids was strongly reduced by the nitrification inhibitors (27–95 %). The inhibitor-sensitive 13C-PLFA (phospholipid-derived fatty acid) pool was dominated by the common PLFAs 16:0, 16:1ω7c and 18:1ω7c throughout the whole sampling period and occasionally also included the polyunsaturated fatty acids 18:2ω6c and 18:3ω3. 13C-DIC fixation activity of the nitrifying bacteria was much higher than that of the nitrifying Thaumarchaeota throughout the whole sampling period, even during the peak in Thaumarchaeotal abundance and activity. This suggests that the contribution of autotrophic Thaumarchaeota to nitrification during winter in the coastal North Sea may have been smaller than expected from their gene abundance (16S rRNA and amoA (ammonia monooxygenase)). These results emphasize the importance of direct measurements of the actual activity of bacteria and Thaumarchaeota, rather than abundance measurements only, in order to elucidate their biogeochemical importance. The ratio between rates of nitrification versus DIC fixation by bacterial nitrifiers was higher or even much higher than typical values for autotrophic nitrifiers, indicating that little DIC was fixed relative to the amount of energy that was generated by nitrification.

Final-revised paper