The Comammox Research Platform

The environmental deposition of nitrogen used in food production and from fossil fuel combustion exceeds the amounts of biologically fixed nitrogen in terrestrial or marine ecosystems. A downside of industrialized agriculture is that enormous amounts of ammonium from synthetic fertilizers and manure enter the nitrogen cycle via nitrification.

Consequences are the eutrophication of ground- and surface waters, dead zones in marine and freshwater systems, and a massive loss of biodiversity. Management strategies are urgently needed to ensure a more efficient use of fertilizers and to reduce emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas N2O, a by-product of nitrogen cycle processes including nitrification.

These important measures to secure the health of our planet are hampered by surprisingly large gaps in our fundamental understanding of the microbiology of nitrification. This is best illustrated by the surprising discovery of comammox bacteria, global players in nitrification that were undetected for more than a century of research. The identification of comammox has raised pressing questions about the biochemistry, physiology, and ecology of these organisms - questions that are a true challenge for research, because comammox are elusive bacteria and escape most attempts to grow them under laboratory conditions.

In the Comammox Research Platform we will investigate key aspects of comammox biology, taking advantage of the broad diversity of scientific disciplines at the University of Vienna. Selected key enzymes of comammox will be structurally and biochemically characterized. How does complete nitrification work in a single organism? What are mechanistic differences between comammox and canonical nitrifying microbes? The environmental impact of comammox will be studied by combining approaches from microbiology, chemistry, and ecosystem science. How much do comammox bacteria contribute to nitrification in soils and sewage treatment plants? Does their activity cause environmentally relevant N2O emissions? Our aim is to achieve an encompassing picture of comammox bacteria over different scales, which range from details of their unique molecular machinery to their roles within microbial communities and ecosystems.

The Comammox Research Platform is a joint initiative of members of the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science and the Centre for Molecular Biology at the University of Vienna. The platform has been established for three years by the Rectorate of the University of Vienna and was launched in June 2018.

Website of the Comammox Research Platform

This project is funded by the University of Vienna.

Investigated by: