In the past 10 years many molecular aspects of microbial nitrate reduction have been elucidated, but the ecophysiology of this process is hardly understood. In this contribution, our efforts to study the complex microbial communities and interactions involved in the reduction of nitrate to dinitrogen gas are summarized. The initial work concentrated on emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide during incomplete denitrification by Alcaligenes faecalis. As more research methods became available, the fitness of A. faecalis could be tested in mixed cultures with other denitrifying bacteria, most notably with the nitrate-reducing bacterium Pseudomonas G9. Finally, the advancement of molecular diagnostic tools made it possible to survey complex microbial communities using specific primer sets for/and antibodies raised against the various NOx reductases. Given the enormous complexity of substrates and environmental conditions, it is evident that mixed cultures rather than single species are responsible for denitrification in man-made and natural ecosystems. However, it is surprising that even for the breakdown of a single compound, such as acetate, mixed cultures are responsible, and that the consecutive denitrification steps are commonly performed by mutualistic co-operating species. Our observations also indicate that we seldom know the identity of the major key players in the nitrogen cycle of these ecosystems.

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