Microbes are the most abundant form of life in the ocean, the largest biological system on Earth.  While they are generally too small to be seen by the unaided eye, there are 100 million times as many microbes in the oceans (13 × 1028) as there are stars in the known universe.  However, for every creature on earth, big or small, there is a time to be born and a time to die.  Death sustains new life in the ocean and microorganisms are essential for converting the products of decay into the nutrients of life.  They grow by assisting digestion in guts of marine animals, by consuming animal waste and decay, and by capturing the energy of the sun.  They too are eaten, and their small bodies and the nutrients released at death sustain all life in the sea.  A very important nutrient is ammonia, a form of nitrogen that is used to make protein and DNA essential to all life.  For over a century we did not know what marine microbes were responsible for converting ammonia to other bioavailable forms that can close the circle of life in the oceans.  We now know because of the isolation of the responsible microbe from marine environment by investigators from Stahl lab at the University of Washington.  It is a member of the Archaea, an evolutionary branch of life that diverged from animals, plants, and bacteria over three billion years ago.  This novel microbe was named Nitrosopumilus maritimus, a Latin name that translates to “the dwarf nitrifier of the sea”.  Nitrifiers oxidize the ammonia originating from decay into nitrate, a form of nitrogen sustaining most microbes and algae in the sea. 

Although very small (4 million could fit on the head of a pin), because marine ammonia-oxidizing archaea are among the most abundant organisms in the ocean, accounting for 20% of total marine microbes, they control the production of nitrate.  Their remarkable success is attributed to the ability to grow on only a whiff of ammonia, just one teaspoon of household ammonia added to an Olympic size swimming pool would keep them actively growing.  Besides their prominent role in nitrogen cycle, ammonia-oxidizing archaea also make a significant contribution to the marine carbon cycle through CO2 fixation, the production of the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane, and the provision of vitamin B12 to primary producers like algae in oceanic systems.  Beyond the marine environments, members of ammonia-oxidizing archaea have also been found in a wide variety of habitats, including soil, freshwater, wastewater, and hot springs.  They are now considered as one of the most widely distributed organisms in Earth`s biosphere, reflecting their remarkable ecological adaptation.

Recent News

I am beyond thrilled to announce that in January 2021 I will be joining the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma as an Assistant Professor!  I am looking for graduate students and postdocs to join my lab in Winter 2021. Please email me if you are interested and reach out for more details. [more]


Our Nature Microbiology paper was featured by OU research news.


Check out our new article published in Nature Microbiology.


Xiangkun Kong will join Qin lab as a visiting postdoc from September 2023. Welcome, Xiangkun!


Dr. Qin received the Nancy L. Mergler Faculty Mentor Award for Undergraduate Research.


Congrats to Salma Waheed and Pierce Harvell for being awarded the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program scholarship.


Congrats to Pierce Harvell for being awarded the Provost’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Fellowship.


Wei Qin and our collaborators received the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences (DFCAS) Collaborative Research faculty Fellowships.

Lei Hou will join Qin lab as a visiting postdoc research associate from February 2022. Welcome, Lei!

Check our new perspective paper published in Science.

Michael Wells will join Qin lab as a postdoc research associate from July 2021. Welcome, Michael!

Hanyan Li will join Qin lab as a postdoc research associate from August 2021. Welcome, Hanyan!

Xiangpeng Li will join Qin lab as a lab technician from April 2021. Welcome, Xiangpeng!

Long Ngo, Bella Quan, and Zachary Perry join Qin Lab as undergraduate researchers. Welcome, Long, Bella, and Zach!

Just moved in the brand new lab space! Hope my nitrifier cultures will like this new home. [more]

The SEM picture of Nitrosopumilus maritimus is featured as the cover of the most recent volume of Environmental Microbiology. [more]