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Bacterial pair puts the fix on undersea nitrogen

Two species of bacteria living on the ocean floor have teamed up in a unique symbiotic relationship to form a critical link in the Earth’s nitrogen cycle, reports a research team that includes two University of California, Davis, microbiologists.

The scientists, led by researchers affiliated with the University of Southern California, will publish their findings about the novel bacterial partnership Aug. 8 in the journal Nature.

At the heart of the study are the long, thin, hairlike bacteria called Thioploca (meaning “sulfur braids” in Spanish) and the tiny anammox bacteria, which use ammonium and nitrite released by Thioploca as an energy source. Both species of bacteria dwell in the ocean floor off of the coast of Baja California as well as the Pacific coast of South America.

The Thioploca live as filaments inside sheaths that glide vertically through marine sediment, generating nitrite and “fixed” nitrogen. The anammox bacteria live in close association with, or piggy-back on, Thioploca, allowing them to consume the byproducts produced by Thioploca.

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