Microbial responses to chitin and chitosan in oxic and anoxic agricultural soil slurries
Abstract. Microbial degradation of chitin in soil substantially contributes to carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems. Chitin is globally the second most abundant biopolymer after cellulose and can be deacetylated to chitosan or can be hydrolyzed to N,N′-diacetylchitobiose and oligomers of N-acetylglucosamine by aerobic and anaerobic microorganisms. Which pathway of chitin hydrolysis is preferred by soil microbial communities is unknown. Supplementation of chitin stimulated microbial activity under oxic and anoxic conditions in agricultural soil slurries, whereas chitosan had no effect. Thus, the soil microbial community likely was more adapted to chitin as a substrate. In addition, this finding suggested that direct hydrolysis of chitin was preferred to the pathway that starts with deacetylation. Chitin was apparently degraded by aerobic respiration, ammonification, and nitrification to carbon dioxide and nitrate under oxic conditions. When oxygen was absent, fermentation products (acetate, butyrate, propionate, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide) and ammonia were detected, suggesting that butyric and propionic acid fermentation, along with ammonification, were likely responsible for anaerobic chitin degradation. In total, 42 different chiA genotypes were detected of which twenty were novel at an amino acid sequence dissimilarity of less than 50%. Various chiA genotypes responded to chitin supplementation and affiliated with a novel deep-branching bacterial chiA genotype (anoxic conditions), genotypes of Beta- and Gammaproteobacteria (oxic and anoxic conditions), and Planctomycetes (oxic conditions). Thus, this study provides evidence that detected chitinolytic bacteria were catabolically diverse and occupied different ecological niches with regard to oxygen availability enabling chitin degradation under various redox conditions on community level.