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Vol. 9, No. 11, 2014, Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111560

High Abundances of Potentially Active Ammonia-Oxidizing Bacteria and Archaea in Oligotrophic, High-Altitude Lakes of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA

Curtis J. Hayden, J. Michael Beman

Life and Environmental Sciences and Sierra Nevada Research Institute, University of California Merced, Merced, California, United States of America.


Nitrification plays a central role in the nitrogen cycle by determining the oxidation state of nitrogen and its subsequent bioavailability and cycling. However, relatively little is known about the underlying ecology of the microbial communities that carry out nitrification in freshwater ecosystems and particularly within high-altitude oligotrophic lakes, where nitrogen is frequently a limiting nutrient. We quantified ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) in 9 high-altitude lakes (2289–3160 m) in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA, in relation to spatial and biogeochemical data. Based on their ammonia monooxygenase (amoA) genes, AOB and AOA were frequently detected. AOB were present in 88% of samples and were more abundant than AOA in all samples. Both groups showed >100 fold variation in abundance between different lakes, and were also variable through time within individual lakes. Nutrient concentrations (ammonium, nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate) were generally low but also varied across and within lakes, suggestive of active internal nutrient cycling; AOB abundance was significantly correlated with phosphate (r2 = 0.32, p<0.1), whereas AOA abundance was inversely correlated with lake elevation (r2 = 0.43, p<0.05). We also measured low rates of ammonia oxidation—indicating that AOB, AOA, or both, may be biogeochemically active in these oligotrophic ecosystems. Our data indicate that dynamic populations of AOB and AOA are found in oligotrophic, high-altitude, freshwater lakes.


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