The nitrifying microbial diversity and population structure of a sequencing biofilm batch reactor receiving sewage with high ammonia and salt concentrations (SBBR 1) was analyzed by the full-cycle rRNA approach. The diversity of ammonia-oxidizers in this reactor was additionally investigated using comparative sequence analysis of a gene fragment of the ammonia monooxygenase (amoA), which represents a key enzyme of all ammonia-oxidizers. Despite the “extreme” conditions in the reactor, a surprisingly high diversity of ammonia- and nitrite-oxidizers was observed to occur within the biofilm. In addition, molecular evidence for the existence of novel ammonia-oxidizers is presented. Quantification of ammonia- and nitrite-oxidizers in the biofilm by Fluorescent In situ Hybridization (FISH) and digital image analysis revealed that ammonia-oxidizers occurred in higher cell numbers and occupied a considerably larger share of the total biovolume than nitrite-oxidizing bacteria. In addition, ammonia oxidation rates per cell were calculated for different WWTPs following the quantification of ammonia-oxidizers by competitive PCR of an amoA gene fragment. The morphology of nitrite-oxidizing, unculturable Nitrospira-like bacteria was studied using FISH, confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) and three-dimensional visualization. Thereby, a complex network of microchannels and cavities was detected within microcolonies of Nitrospira-like bacteria. Microautoradiography combined with FISH was applied to investigate the ability of these organisms to use CO2 as carbon source and to take up other organic substrates under varying conditions. Implications of the obtained results for fundamental understanding of the microbial ecology of nitrifiers as well as for future improvement of nutrient removal in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are discussed.

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