16S rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide probes for phylogenetically defined groups of autotrophic ammonia-oxidizing bacteria were used for analyzing the natural diversity of nitrifiers in an industrial sewage treatment plant receiving sewage with high ammonia concentrations. In this facility discontinuous aeration is used to allow for complete nitrification and denitrification. In situ hybridization revealed a yet undescribed diversity of ammonia oxidizers occurring in the plant. Surprisingly, the majority of the ammonia oxidizers were detected with probe combinations which indicate a close affiliation of these cells with Nitrosococcus mobilis. In addition, low numbers of ammonia-oxidizers related to the Nitrosomonas europaea - Nitrosomonas eutropha cluster were present. Interestingly, we also observed hybridization patterns which suggested the occurrence of a novel population of ammonia oxidizers. Confocal laser scanning microscopy revealed that all specifically stained ammonia oxidizers were clustered in microcolonies formed by rod-shaped bacteria. Combination of FISH and mathematical modeling was used to investigate diffusion limitation of ammonia and O2 within these aggregates. Model simulations suggest that mass transfer limitations inside the clusters are not as significant as the substrate limitations due to the activity of surrounding heterotrophic bacteria. To learn more about the ammonia-oxidizers of the industrial plant, we enriched and isolated ammonia-oxidizing bacteria from the activated sludge by combining classical cultivation techniques and FISH. Monitoring the isolates with the nested probe set allowed us to specifically identify those ammonia oxidizers which were found in situ to be numerically dominant. The phylogenetic relationship of these isolates determined by comparative 16S rDNA sequence analysis confirmed the affiliation suggested by FISH.

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