Two of the most divisive words in the aquarium hobby. It is quite the phenomenon how these bacteria, which perform the most important function to the health of the overall aquarium, has created such a complete mess of bad information, lack of understanding, and outright disdain. And the sheer amount of different varieties of the aforementioned is troubling.
At ATM Aquarium Products we deal with biological cultures on a daily basis, most visibly our true nitrifying bacteria culture Colony. These cultures are relied upon by home aquarists, public aquariums, aquaculture, aquaponics, waste water, and a number of other industries where the rapid establishing of bio-filtration comes at a premium. All told, ATM’s team has 30 years of experience formulating, packaging, and distributing biological cultures including nitrifying bacteria (the real ones).
Because of this unmatched experience with the application of producing and distributing biological cultures, the following is the definitive information and fact sheet you will need on nitrifying bacteria and nitrifying bacteria products.
While reading this article it is important to remember that these are the facts. All of these facts can be checked and verified very easily with minimal effort. The kind of microbes we are discussing have long since been classified, isolated, studied, and applied as bio-remediation tools for a long time.
There will be a few laughs, a few tears, and a few uncomfortable moments, but we’ll get through this together!
Ready? Let’s do it!
Why does everyone argue about nitrifying bacteria?
Meet Bob. Bob is an avid aquatics enthusiast and purchased a true nitrifying bacteria culture to cycle his aquarium. He used the product as directed and it worked as expected.
Larry, another aquarist in another state, purchased a different product with the same language and claims. His experience was very different. Larry got no results. Larry tried brand after brand and again no results. Now Larry is angry having wasted money and now refers to any and all products that have the words “nitrifying bacteria” on it as “snake oil”.
One day, Bob and Larry meet on a discussion forum where another aquarist is asking about bacteria products. Bob recommends his product that worked great. Larry insists that these products don’t work and replies “just wait six weeks and save your money”. Bob reaffirms his stance that the product he used works great. Larry, conjuring his past anger attacks Bob for being so naive as to believe these products work.
Bob, with ego in flames, begins calling Larry names. Larry retaliates and the two go back and forth until the thread is 180 pages long and nobody has learned anything.
Done with the whole thing, Bob suggests Larry try the brand he tried but Larry doesn’t bother. In fact, he now doesn’t want it to work because he has invested 180 pages in his stance. If he were to try it and have success, Larry would be forced to either admit his error or claim that it didn’t work. Since neither option is appealing to Larry, he declines the challenge. So much for the scientific method.
The above has played out day after day, year after year.
So the question is how can two different aquarists have two completely different experiences with “nitrifying bacteria”? What Bob and Larry don’t know is that they not only used two different brands, they used two different kinds of bacteria. Put on a pot of coffee because we’re just getting started here!
Nitrifying Bacteria Products 101
There has been a litany of companies for the last 20 years, and ongoing, that package heterotroph and anaerobic bacteria and pass those off as bacteria that “cycle” an aquarium. These bacteria utilize organic compounds, predominantly formed by decomposing organic matter in an aquatic system. Since ammonia and nitrite are inorganic compounds, these bacteria are not the ones that perform bio-filtration in aquaria and therefore are hopeless to work as advertised. While anaerobic bacteria play an important role in aquaria, bio-filtration simply isn’t one of them.
The function of bio-filtration is performed by aerobic autotrophs, bacteria that utilize the inorganic compounds ammonia and nitrite.
Aerobic autotrophs are not nearly as easy to produce, package, and bring to market as anaerobic bacteria. That is why they are extremely rare. True nitrifying bacteria require a strict and heavily quality controlled manufacturing process. Therefore, the cheapest product with the least quality control liability is always chosen: Spore-forming anaerobic bacteria, and never mind that these aren’t even the bacteria that create the aquarium’s bio-filter. But there is a major effort out there to make you think they are!
The nitrifying bacteria market has suffered only from impostor products that use misdirection, double talk, and clever language of technicality. This is about to be explained and exposed.
“Hey Kid, Ya Need A Watch?”
Now that we’ve learned about impostor nitrifying bacteria in the marketplace, let’s investigate why these products are able to make such misleading claims. After all, the first question that comes to mind is “how do they get away with this?”
When these companies package anaerobic and heterotrophic bacteria and claim to contain “nitrifying bacteria”, they technically aren’t lying. The fact is they are accurate when they say they have “nitrifying bacteria”. Nitrifying bacteria, after all, are defined as bacteria capable of nitrification.
But now let’s define “nitrification” as the act of oxidizing a nitrogen product to a different nitrogen product. Then, because some heterotroph and anaerobic bacteria can, under rare conditions, utilize ammonia as a secondary energy source, they can technically be called “nitrifying bacteria” and BANG! We have a “nitrifying bacteria” product.
But let’s hold our horses. In an aquarium we want a completely different kind of nitrifying bacteria that is referred to as “true” nitrifying bacteria. These bacteria are the ones that utilize ammonia and nitrite as a primary energy source.
To give you an idea of the performance gap between secondary and primary energy sources, it can take up to 1,000,000 heterotrophic or anaerobic bacteria cells (depending on the species) to remove the same amount of ammonia as one (1) true nitrifying bacteria cell. These other bacteria will generally not utilize nitrite period.
Some products claim to have “nitrifying bacteria” that perform in any and all parameters, unlike actual true nitrifying bacteria. In hopes that you don’t know the difference between the two, these products stand to present a case that you will create a bio-filter that is invulnerable to any and all changes in pH, alkalinity, temperature, and oxygen levels.
Ladies and gentlemen, our bio-filters take on the characteristics of the bacteria that form them. That our bio-filters crash when pH, alkalinity, or temperature plummets is the smoking gun that these bacteria aren’t impervious to changes in water parameters. If those other bacteria were truly better, then they would have risen to dominance in the system to create the principle bio-filter. Common sense can be a real pain in the butt.
And this is that “uncomfortable moment” we discussed on the opening page. If you’re starting to feel like you’ve being conned you aren’t alone.
Some companies have bacteria “cocktails” but ATM packages them one by one. Is that just to have more products?
No. All beneficial bacteria for aquaria cannot be packaged together in a “one size fits all” format.
It is a great marketing ploy for many companies, but that’s as far as it goes. Aerobic autotrophs, the true nitrifying bacteria, are non spore-forming bacteria that are free living, although in a low metabolic state when packaged. The anaerobic and heterotroph bacteria that are regularly passed off as “nitrifying bacteria” are spore-forming bacteria that shield themselves in spores. To keep spore-forming bacteria in spores, special inhibitors are used to signal the bacteria that it is not safe to emerge from spore form. These inhibitors kill the aerobic autotroph non-spore forming bacteria almost on contact. This will result in a 100% loss of non spore-forming true nitrifying bacteria.
That is why they cannot be packaged together and why these products have a way of never really working out for anybody when it comes to establishing bio-filtration.
So now we know which genomes of bacteria are “true” and which are pretenders.
Now let’s address why freshwater and saltwater strains of nitrifying bacteria cannot be bottled together.
Obviously, one functions better in freshwater and one in saltwater; That is every function from eating to controlling metabolic efficiency. But let’s pretend that they could. ATM Colony would cost three times as much, because to cycle a 50 gallon freshwater or saltwater aquarium would require all of the bacteria necessary for each environment (saltwater requires twice the number of bacteria as freshwater).
But this would be impossible as well. Each shelf stable bottle of nitrifying bacteria is concentrated to the max as it is. To stuff any more bacteria into each respective sized bottle would require refrigeration. And a refrigerated nitrifying bacteria product, such as those that ATM distributes to large water and oceanic operations, has only half the shelf life as its shelf stable counterpart. Not practical for the retail market.
How do the true nitrifying bacteria stay alive in the bottle? What do they eat?
There are many factors that effect the performance of aerobic autotrophs. Alkalinity, pH, and temperature can effect their performance. Being aerobic, oxygen has the most profound effect. The life of these bacteria can be manipulated greatly by oxygen.
When aerobic autotrophs are deprived of oxygen, they don’t just die like a human being would. They instead go into a state of hybernation much like a bear, slowing their metabolims drastically. This allows them to survive for extended periods of time in an anaerobic environment, although not able to consume ammonia and nitrite.
Autotrophs can survive approximately eight months in this state, feeding off of their own nutritional reserves. So the fact is they do not eat in the bottle. They don’t require it. Therefore, a product like ATM Colony will contain actual, living true nitrifying bacteria for its expected shelf life.
The only thing that will kill these bacteria between bottling and application is an introduction of a toxic chemical into the bottle by a third party, or that the bottle reaches extreme temperatures.
Now, the following is going to seem unbelievable but it is true. Some companies, in attempt to compete with true nitrifying bacteria with their anaerobic and heterotroph bacteria, actually attempt to warn hobbyists away from aerobic autotrophs! Their talking point on this is that due to their temperature limitations, true nitrifying bacteria cannot survive shipping in some parts of the world.
This is another example of telling 50% of half the truth. While this claim may have been true in the 1800’s, we know today that even fish are successfully shipped every day around the world with even tighter environmental restriction than bacteria ever dreamed of.
These are the kind of attempts at deception that hobbyists have been forced to endure for way too long.
Rapid Cycle No Less Natural
When establishing bio-filtration over weeks, what is it that we are waiting for? We are waiting for a few bacteria to become millions of bacteria. That’s it. That’s what the whole wait is about. Nothing more.
Some will say “I still prefer to cycle the aquarium naturally”, meaning waiting the six weeks for a few bacteria to populate to the tune of millions. This is an insinuation that waiting weeks is more “natural” than importing the lot of them directly. One way is no more natural than the other. It makes no difference where the bacteria grew and multiplied. Whether by ATM’s team or in your aquarium, they are the same bacteria that took the same time to develop that consumed the same energy sources.
Saying the long cycle is more “natural” than a rapid cycle by imported true nitrifying bacteria cultures is the same as saying a clown fish imported from a local fish store is less natural than one born in your aquarium.
And those are just the facts.
The Bio Filter Is Always Imported
The bacteria that make up bio-filtration in aquaria, or as we’ve learned “aerobic autotrophs”, do not appear immaculately. In other words, they don’t just magically appear out of thin air just because the water has sat for six weeks with nothing in it.
These bacteria are always imported from somewhere. There has to be an “Adam and Eve” in order to propagate. Adam and Eve arrived in the system either on the fish themselves, their waste, or any other objects that have resided or had contact with another aquarium that already has established bio-filtration. Seeing as these bacteria are always imported, wouldn’t it be more useful to know how many are being imported?
Hobbyists don’t typically have the equipment to count bacteria. The best to hope for is that you “got some” from somewhere.
Take live rock, for instance. Many will boast the quality of their live rock for the role of helping establish bio-filtration. The assumption is made that “here is a rock from a system that is cycled. Therefore it is covered with nitrifying bacteria. The End.”
But this is like suggesting that if you dip a bucket in the ocean it will automatically be full of fish simply because “that’s where the fish are”.
Nitrifying bacteria don’t just latch on to the first available place. Truth be told, nitrifying bacteria will choose to reside in carbon over any other media nine times out of ten. Therefore, if a system has carbon attached to it, you can expect to find most of it there. In the event that there isn’t carbon, these bacteria will prefer to reside where the majority of the ammonia flow occurs in the aquarium. This will not consist of every square inch of live rock or any other media existing in the aquarium. Nitrifying bacteria are choosy. Like you and I they are looking for the perfect house that best suits their lifestyle.
This is why media exchanges from other systems are an inexact science. This passage is, by no means, discouraging this practice, as it can be quite useful and better than starting with nothing. It is to be noted, however, that there is risk involved with media exchanges. Pests, disease, and pathogens can be transmitted by moving material from one aquarium to another so caution must be observed.
Importing a concentrated culture of bacteria, such as with ATM Colony, carries no risk of transmitting anything harmful. It is, in essence, a sterile needle. Most importantly, you know you have the bacteria count to fully establish the number of bacteria required to perform bio-filtration in your system.
You Have To Use Them Right
Just like any other tool, there is a right way and a wrong way to use Colony or any imported true nitrifying bacteria. Fish are typically cared for based on their needs and behaviors. Bacteria are the same and deserve the same attention and respect.
Fish come in a bag and bacteria come in a bottle. Because of this, too many consumers don’t associate a bottle of bacteria as being livestock. Bacteria are and must be treated like livestock!
Because the market is saturated with impostor nitrifying bacteria, their instructions obviously aren’t much use and no education is gained in this area. Only confusion remains. This has left the hobby without much knowledge of how to utilize and bring along a true nitrifying bacteria culture such as Colony to its full glory.
Have you ever brought fish home and just chucked them in the aquarium straight away? Of course not. The fish are brought along slowly to most effectively embrace their new environment. Once out of their comfort zone they won’t function properly and might even die. Bacteria require acclimation the same as fish.
In order to acclimate bacteria, it is important not to throw the kitchen sink at them. We see this often in a “fishless” cycle where an ammonia product is used as a surrogate food source to fish waste to the tune of many parts per million. This is not the way to bring bacteria along.
True nitrifying bacteria do not need to be force-fed huge amounts of ammonia to develop. In fact, a light load allows them to nest and start working optimally much faster. That’s the whole point, to do this fast. The point isn’t to throw the kitchen sink at them to see how much of a beating they can take to prove their effectiveness. This isn’t done to fish, corals, or inverts and shouldn’t be done to nitrifying bacteria either. They need what they need so they deserve the same care considerations.
For a more detailed procedure to properly utilize Colony, see our field guide used at industry and home aquaria.
Follow The Evidence
Waiting weeks and weeks to cycle an aquarium is called by many names: “Long Cycle”, in literal terms, “Natural Cycle”, in contextually incomplete terms, and “Old Cycle”, in contemporary terms. Clearly, each term signifies a different perspective. And clearly there is a major disconnect going on.
This disconnect is easily cured by a commitment to the facts. We have covered the facts about nitrifying bacteria, how they live, and what in their characteristics that allow them to be packaged, safely shipped, and imported. Through these facts it is irrefutable that there is not one single factor that is prohibitive to the integrity of the claims made by Colony.
Every day in the world some industry is utilizing an imported nitrifying bacteria culture to correct a bio-filtration problem. As time goes by this practice gains popularity, not loses popularity. Why would that be for something that doesn’t work? Keep in mind these are real industries with real problems that require real solutions.
True nitrifying bacteria are livestock. They are alive. Therefore, we must treat them like livestock.
The facts are always our friends. They are always there, ever shining through the dark void of opinions and bias.