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Summary

Marine Crenarchaeota represent an abundant component of the oceanic microbiota that play an important role in the global nitrogen cycle. Here we report the association of the colonial ascidian Cystodytes dellechiajei with putative ammonia-oxidizing Crenarchaeota that could actively be involved in nitrification inside the animal tissue. As shown by 16S rRNA gene analysis, the ascidian-associated Crenarchaeota were phylogenetically related to Nitrosopumilus maritimus, the first marine archaeon isolated in pure culture that grows chemolithoautotrophically oxidizing ammonia to nitrite aerobically. Catalysed reporter deposition (CARD)-FISH revealed that the Crenarchaeota were specifically located inside the tunic tissue of the colony, where moreover the expression of amoA gene was detected. The amoA gene encodes the alpha-subunit of ammonia monooxygenase, which is involved in the first step of nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia to nitrite. Sequencing of amoA gene showed that they were phylogenetically related to amoA genes of N. maritimus and other putative ammonia-oxidizing marine Crenarchaeota. In order to track the suspected nitrification activity inside the ascidian colony under in vivo conditions, microsensor profiles were measured through the tunic tissue. Net NOx production was detected in the tunic layer 1200–1800 μm with rates of 58–90 nmol cm−3 h−1. Oxygen and pH microsensor profiles showed that the layer of net NOx production coincided with O2 concentrations of 103–116 μM and pH value of 5.2. Together, molecular and microsensor data indicate that Crenarchaeota could oxidize ammonia to nitrite aerobically, and thus be involved in nitrification inside the ascidian tissue.