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Summary

Marine Crenarchaeota are among the most abundant microbial groups in the ocean, and although relatively little is currently known about their biogeochemical roles in marine ecosystems, recognition that Crenarchaeota posses ammonia monooxygenase (amoA) genes and may act as ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) offers another means of probing the ecology of these microorganisms. Here we use a time series approach combining quantification of archaeal and bacterial ammonia oxidizers with bacterial community fingerprints and biogeochemistry, to explore the population and community ecology of nitrification. At multiple depths (150, 500 and 890 m) in the Southern California Bight sampled monthly from 2003 to 2006, AOA were enumerated via quantitative PCR of archaeal amoA and marine group 1 Crenarchaeota 16S rRNA genes. Based on amoA genes, AOA were highly variable in time – a consistent feature of marine Crenarchaeota– however, average values were similar at different depths and ranged from 2.20 to 2.76 × 104amoA copies ml−1. Archaeal amoA genes were correlated with Crenarchaeota 16S rRNA genes (r2 = 0.79) and the slope of this relationship was 1.02, demonstrating that the majority of marine group 1 Crenarchaeota present over the dates and depths sampled possessed amoA. Two AOA clades were specifically quantified and compared with betaproteobacterial ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (β-AOB) amoA genes at 150 m; these AOA groups were found to strongly co-vary in time (r2 = 0.70, P < 0.001) whereas AOA : β-AOB ratios ranged from 13 to 5630. Increases in the AOA : β-AOB ratio correlated with the accumulation of nitrite (r2 = 0.87, P < 0.001), and may be indicative of differences in substrate affinities and activities leading to periodic decoupling between ammonia and nitrite oxidation. These data capture a dynamic nitrogen cycle in which multiple microbial groups appear to be active participants.