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Summary

Ammonia-oxidizing archaea are frequent and ubiquitous inhabitants of terrestrial and marine environments. As they have only recently been detected, most aspects of their metabolism are yet unknown. Here we report on the occurrence of genes encoding potential homologues of copper-dependent nitrite reductases (NirK) in ammonia-oxidizing archaea of soils and other environments using metagenomic approaches and PCR amplification. Two pairs of highly overlapping 40 kb genome fragments, each containing nirK genes of archaea, were isolated from a metagenomic soil library. Between 68% and 85% of the open reading frames on these genome fragments had homologues in the genomes of the marine archaeal ammonia oxidizers Nitrosopumilus maritimus and Cenarchaeum symbiosum. Extensions of NirK homologues with C-terminal fused amicyanin domains were deduced from two of the four fosmids indicating structural variation of these multicopper proteins in archaea. Phylogenetic analyses including all major groups of currently known NirK homologues revealed that the deduced protein sequences of marine and soil archaea were separated into two highly divergent lineages that did not contain bacterial homologues. In contrast, another separated lineage contained potential multicopper oxidases of both domains, archaea and bacteria. More nirK gene variants directly amplified by PCR from several environments indicated further diversity of the gene and a widespread occurrence in archaea. Transcription of the potential archaeal nirK in soil was demonstrated at different water contents, but no significant increase in transcript copy number was observed with increased denitrifying activity.