Urease gene-containing Archaea dominate autotrophic ammonia oxidation in two acid soils

Lu Lu, Zhongjun Jia
Environmental Microbiology 2013, 15 (6): 1795-809
The metabolic traits of ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) interacting with their environment determine the nitrogen cycle at the global scale. Ureolytic metabolism has long been proposed as a mechanism for AOB to cope with substrate paucity in acid soil, but it remains unclear whether urea hydrolysis could afford AOA greater ecological advantages. By combining DNA-based stable isotope probing (SIP) and high-throughput pyrosequencing, here we show that autotrophic ammonia oxidation in two acid soils was predominately driven by AOA that contain ureC genes encoding the alpha subunit of a putative archaeal urease. In urea-amended SIP microcosms of forest soil (pH 5.40) and tea orchard soil (pH 3.75), nitrification activity was stimulated significantly by urea fertilization when compared with water-amended soils in which nitrification resulted solely from the oxidation of ammonia generated through mineralization of soil organic nitrogen. The stimulated activity was paralleled by changes in abundance and composition of archaeal amoA genes. Time-course incubations indicated that archaeal amoA genes were increasingly labelled by (13) CO2 in both microcosms amended with water and urea. Pyrosequencing revealed that archaeal populations were labelled to a much greater extent in soils amended with urea than water. Furthermore, archaeal ureC genes were successfully amplified in the (13) C-DNA, and acetylene inhibition suggests that autotrophic growth of urease-containing AOA depended on energy generation through ammonia oxidation. The sequences of AOB were not detected, and active AOA were affiliated with the marine Group 1.1a-associated lineage. The results suggest that ureolytic N metabolism could afford AOA greater advantages for autotrophic ammonia oxidation in acid soil, but the mechanism of how urea activates AOA cells remains unclear.

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