A decade after the beginning of the genomic era, the question of how genomics can describe a bacterial species has not been fully addressed. Experimental data have shown that in some species new genes are discovered even after sequencing the genomes of several strains. Mathematical modeling predicts that new genes will be discovered even after sequencing hundreds of genomes per species. Therefore, a bacterial species can be described by its pan-genome, which is composed of a "core genome" containing genes present in all strains, and a "dispensable genome" containing genes present in two or more strains and genes unique to single strains. Given that the number of unique genes is vast, the pan-genome of a bacterial species might be orders of magnitude larger than any single genome.
Nitrification, the oxidation of ammonia (NH3) via nitrite (NO2(-)) to nitrate (NO3(-)), is a key process of the biogeochemical nitrogen cycle. For decades, ammonia and nitrite oxidation were thought to be separately catalysed by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and archaea (AOA), and by nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB). The recent discovery of complete ammonia oxidizers (comammox) in the NOB genus Nitrospira, which alone convert ammonia to nitrate, raised questions about the ecological niches in which comammox Nitrospira successfully compete with canonical nitrifiers. Here we isolate a pure culture of a comammox bacterium, Nitrospira inopinata, and show that it is adapted to slow growth in oligotrophic and dynamic habitats on the basis of a high affinity for ammonia, low maximum rate of ammonia oxidation, high growth yield compared to canonical nitrifiers, and genomic potential for alternative metabolisms. The nitrification kinetics of four AOA from soil and hot springs were determined for comparison. Their surprisingly poor substrate affinities and lower growth yields reveal that, in contrast to earlier assumptions, AOA are not necessarily the most competitive ammonia oxidizers present in strongly oligotrophic environments and that N. inopinata has the highest substrate affinity of all analysed ammonia oxidizer isolates except the marine AOA Nitrosopumilus maritimus SCM1 (ref. 3). These results suggest a role for comammox organisms in nitrification under oligotrophic and dynamic conditions.