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Summary

Nitrification of excess ammonia in soil causes eutrophication of water resources and emission of atmospheric N2O gas. The first step of nitrification, ammonia oxidation, is mediated by Archaea as well as Bacteria. The physiological reactions mediated by ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and their contribution to soil nitrification are still unclear. Results of non-culture-based studies have shown the thaumarchaeotal group I.1b lineage of AOA to be dominant over both AOA of group I.1a and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in various soils. We obtained from an agricultural soil a highly enriched ammonia-oxidizing culture dominated by a single archaeal population [c. 90% of total cells, as determined microscopically (by fluorescence in situ hybridization) and by quantitative PCR of its 16S rRNA gene]. The archaeon (termed ‘strain JG1’) fell within thaumarchaeotal group I.1b and was related to the moderately thermophilic archaeon, Candidatus Nitrososphaera gargensis, and the mesophilic archaeon, Ca. Nitrososphaera viennensis with 97.0% and 99.1% 16S rRNA gene sequence similarity respectively. Strain JG1 was neutrophilic (growth range pH 6.0–8.0) and mesophilic (growth range temperature 25–40°C). The optimum temperature of strain JG1 (35–40°C) is > 10°C higher than that of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB). Membrane analysis showed that strain JG1 contained a glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraether, GDGT-4, and its regioisomer as major core lipids; this crenarchaeol regioisomer was previously detected in similar abundance in the thermophile, Ca. N. gargensis and has been frequently observed in tropical soils. Substrate uptake assays showed that the affinity of strain JG1 for ammonia and oxygen was much higher than those of AOB. These traits may give a competitive advantage to AOA related to strain JG1 in oligotrophic environments. 13C-bicarbonate incorporation into archaeal lipids of strain JG1 established its ability to grow autotrophically. Strain JG1 produced a significant amount of N2O gas – implicating AOA as a possible source of N2O emission from soils. Sequences of archaeal amoA and 16S rRNA genes closely related to those of strain JG1 have been retrieved from various terrestrial environments in which lineage of strain JG1 is likely engaged in autotrophic nitrification.