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Microbiol Rev. 1989 March; 53(1): 68–84.
PMCID: PMC372717

Physiology, biochemistry, and specific inhibitors of CH4, NH4+, and CO oxidation by methanotrophs and nitrifiers.


Ammonia oxidizers (family Nitrobacteraceae) and methanotrophs (family Methylococcaceae) oxidize CO and CH4 to CO2 and NH4+ to NO2-. However, the relative contributions of the two groups of organisms to the metabolism of CO, CH4, and NH4+ in various environments are not known. In the ammonia oxidizers, ammonia monooxygenase, the enzyme responsible for the conversion of NH4+ to NH2OH, also catalyzes the oxidation of CH4 to CH3OH. Ammonia monooxygenase also mediates the transformation of CH3OH to CO2 and cell carbon, but the pathway by which this is done is not known. At least one species of ammonia oxidizer, Nitrosococcus oceanus, exhibits a Km for CH4 oxidation similar to that of methanotrophs. However, the highest rate of CH4 oxidation recorded in an ammonia oxidizer is still five times lower than rates in methanotrophs, and ammonia oxidizers are apparently unable to grow on CH4. Methanotrophs oxidize NH4+ to NH2OH via methane monooxygenase and NH4+ to NH2OH via methane monooxygenase and NH2OH to NO2- via an NH2OH oxidase which may resemble the enzyme found in ammonia oxidizers. Maximum rates of NH4+ oxidation are considerably lower than in ammonia oxidizers, and the affinity for NH4+ is generally lower than in ammonia oxidizers. NH4+ does not apparently support growth in methanotrophs. Both ammonia monooxygenase and methane monooxygenase oxidize CO to CO2, but CO cannot support growth in either ammonia oxidizers or methanotrophs. These organisms have affinities for CO which are comparable to those for their growth substrates and often higher than those in carboxydobacteria. The methane monooxygenases of methanotrophs exist in two forms: a soluble form and a particulate form. The soluble form is well characterized and appears unrelated to the particulate. Ammonia monooxygenase and the particulate methane monooxygenase share a number of similarities. Both enzymes contain copper and are membrane bound. They oxidize a variety of inorganic and organic compounds, and their inhibitor profiles are similar. Inhibitors thought to be specific to ammonia oxidizers have been used in environmental studies of nitrification. However, almost all of the numerous compounds found to inhibit ammonia oxidizers also inhibit methanotrophs, and most of the inhibitors act upon the monooxygenases. Many probably exert their effect by chelating copper, which is essential to the proper functioning of some monooxygenases. The lack of inhibitors specific for one or the other of the two groups of bacteria hampers the determination of their relative roles in nature.

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