The MFPL, the Center of Molecular Biology, the Research Network Chemistry Meets Microbiology, the Faculty of Chemistry and the Faculty of Life Sciences participate in the Comammox Research Platform. Holger Daims functions as head of the platform, co-principal investigator is Kristina Djinovic-Carugo. Comammox, short for “complete ammonia oxidiser”, are bacteria that convert ammonia into nitrite and then into nitrate. Prior to their discovery by Daims, Wagner and their colleagues (Nature, 2015), the “dogma” that ammonia- and nitrite oxidation are always catalyzed by two different microorganisms was common textbook knowledge in environmental microbiology and basis of more than 1,000 published studies on nitrogen turnover in nature. Ammonia- and nitrite oxidation, collectively referred to as “nitrification”, are of utmost importance for our planet’s health. On the one hand, nitrifying microbes are a major cause of the often poor fertilization efficiency in agriculture, the eutrophication of water bodies with fertilizer nitrogen, and the emission of the greenhouse and ozone-depleting gas N2O. On the other hand, these organisms are also indispensable for biological wastewater treatment.
In another Nature publication in 2017, Michael Wagner and Holger Daims reported by performing kinetic analyses using microrespirometry that comammox bacteria are more efficient nitrifiers than other microorganisms – a discovery with potentially major implications for agriculture, drinking water purification and wastewater treatment.
With their new research platform, the groups of Kristina Djinovic-Carugo, Holger Daims, Michael Wagner and Andreas Richter now strive to study fundamental aspects of comammox physiology and will try to elucidate their ecological roles and impact. Different subprojects include the biochemical and structural characterization of crucial enzymes employed by comammox, as well as the analysis of greenhouse gas production by comammox and other nitrifying bacteria. “I am really excited about this challenging interdisciplinary project.
We will investigate the biochemistry and structural biology of a key enzyme of the comammox pathway – the nitrite oxidoreductase - in order to understand why, and how, it works differently on an atomic level compared to related enzymes from “standard” nitrifying bacteria. We have a long track record of successful collaborations with Holger Daims and Michael Wagner, and I am convinced we are at the beginning of yet another productive and rewarding joint venture”, says Kristina Djinovic-Carugo. Holger Daims adds: “Comammox microbes seem to be abundant in many ecosystems on earth, but we are just starting to learn more about these newly discovered ecological key players. It is imperative for environmental protection and biotechnology that these knowledge gaps are closed soon. The research platform offers wonderful opportunities to tackle pressing open questions about the biology of comammox, from the nitrification process itself, down to molecular details of the biochemical machinery.”
The truly interdisciplinary project strongly relies on a combination of different expertise from microbiology, advanced isotope analytics, and structural biology, as none of the involved groups would be able to reach their ambitious goals independently from one another. The scientists are convinced that this research platform will help the University of Vienna to stay at the forefront of the rapidly moving international comammox research and provide a basis for future application of this knowledge in (waste)water treatment and agriculture.
Research platforms are organisational units, established between faculties at the University of Vienna, in order to promote especially innovative research areas. They address academic questions that can only be studied from an interdisciplinary perspective.
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