Experimental demonstration of chaotic instability in biological nitrification

David W. Graham, Charles W. Knapp, Erik S. Van Vleck, Katie Bloor, Teresa B. Lane, Christopher E. Graham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

220 Citations (Scopus)


Biological nitrification (that is, NH3 -> NO2- -> NO3-) is a key reaction in the global nitrogen cycle (N-cycle); however, it is also known anecdotally to be unpredictable and sometimes fails inexplicably. Understanding the basis of unpredictability in nitrification is critical because the loss or impairment of this function might influence the balance of nitrogen in the environment and also has biotechnological implications. One explanation for unpredictability is the presence of chaotic behavior; however, proving such behavior from experimental data is not trivial, especially in a complex microbial community. Here, we show that chaotic behavior is central to stability in nitrification because of a fragile mutualistic relationship between ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) and nitrite-oxidizing bacteria (NOB), the two major guilds in nitrification. Three parallel chemostats containing mixed microbial communities were fed complex media for 207 days, and nitrification performance, and abundances of AOB, NOB, total bacteria and protozoa were quantified over time. Lyapunov exponent calculations, supported by surrogate data and other tests, showed that all guilds were sensitive to initial conditions, suggesting broad chaotic behavior. However, NOB were most unstable among guilds and displayed a different general pattern of instability. Further, NOB variability was maximized when AOB were most unstable, which resulted in erratic nitrification including significant NO2- accumulation. We conclude that nitrification is prone to chaotic behavior because of a fragile AOB-NOB mutualism, which must be considered in all systems that depend on this critical reaction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-393
Number of pages8
JournalISME Journal
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2007


  • chaotic behavior
  • lyapunov exponents
  • nitrification
  • mutualism
  • N-cycle


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