Nitrite-oxidizing bacteria of the genus Nitrospira are key nitrifiers in wastewater treatment plants. Pure cultures of these organisms are unavailable, but cultivation-independent molecular methods make it possible to detect Nitrospira-like bacteria in environmental samples and to investigate their ecophysiology. Comprehensive screening of natural and engineered habitats and of public databases for 16S rRNA sequences of Nitrospira-like bacteria revealed a surprisingly high biodiversity in the genus Nitrospira, which comprises at least four phylogenetic sublineages. All Nitrospira-like bacteria detected in wastewater treatment plants belonged to the sublineages I and II. Subsequently, the population dynamics of different Nitrospira-like bacteria were monitored, by quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization with rRNA-targeted probes, confocal laser scanning microscopy and digital image analysis, during incubation of nitrifying activated sludge in media containing different nitrite concentrations. These experiments showed that Nitrospira-like bacteria, which were affiliated with the phylogenetic sublineages I or II of the genus Nitrospira, responded differently to nitrite concentration shifts. Previously unknown properties of Nitrospira-like bacteria were discovered in the course of an environmental genomics project. Implications of the obtained results for fundamental understanding of the microbial ecology of nitrite oxidizers as well as for future improvement of nutrient removal in wastewater treatment plants are discussed.

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