What? Of course, nitrifying bacteria aren’t human. Everyone knows that. If that’s the case, which it is, then why do so many people insist on giving nitrifying bacteria human traits? What I am talking about is the continued insistence of many that nitrifying bacteria can’t possibly survive in a bottle because they will starve due to lack of food, if they don’t suffocate first due to lack of oxygen in the bottle. Therefore, no nitrifying bacteria mixture can work because they all come in a bottle.
Humans need oxygen and food to survive. Nitrifying bacteria need oxygen and food to reproduce. There is a difference.
So how can nitrifying bacteria live in a bottle? Well, first we have to make sure we are on the same page, definition wise. For humans, the opposite of live is dead. So if a human being is not living, he or she dead. But bacteria are not human and have a third option, which is a state of not living (meaning their metabolism is almost shut off). But they are not dead. There are a few different terms for bacteria in this state, but the most common term is “viable but nonculturable.” As stated earlier, in this state, the metabolic activity of the bacteria is basically nonexistent and the bacteria can last a very long time in this condition, waiting until conditions get better. This is one reason bacteria have been able to survive so long – they can shutdown and wait out bad environmental conditions.
One also reads a lot that since nitrifying bacteria don’t form spores (which is true), they cannot shut down and go into a resting phase (which is false). Nitrifying bacteria have a different way of maintaining their viability when conditions are poor, which relates to the fact that they prefer to be attached to surfaces where they can develop a coating or shield of exoploymer substances (EPS) that protects them.
Once put into the bottle, nitrifying bacteria no longer have access to food (ammonia or nitrite), and the oxygen level in the liquid in the bottle will drop. The bacteria will sense their environment is changing and they will start to go into the viable but nonculturable state. How long it takes the bacteria to reach this state depends on the temperature, their condition when first placed in the bottle and a few other factors.
So why do so many people think that nitrifying bacteria can’t survive in a bottle in the first place? The main reason is that many hobbyists have used bottled mixtures of nitrifying bacteria and have seen poor to no benefits in terms of accelerating the establishment of the biological filter in their tank. Namely, their tank did not cycle any faster than if they had not used the nitrifying bacteria. So the thinking is that bacteria were good at the manufacturing facility but once placed in a bottle, they quickly died and became useless. Of course, this scenario depends on one main factor – that the nitrifying bacteria are the right bacteria for the aquaria in the first place.
As my peer-reviewed, published research has shown, not all nitrifying bacteria are the same. The nitrifying bacteria in aquaria are different species than those in wastewater treatment facilities (which are species bottled by many companies), and are not the typical species everyone thought were responsible for nitrification in aquaria. Thus, to put it simply, manufacturers were growing and bottling the wrong nitrifying bacteria, and no matter what they were stored in or even if they were fresh from the facility, they were not going to work in the aquaria environment. So, in reality, the bottle had nothing to do with it.
Does that mean nitrifying bacteria can last forever in a bottle? No, they cannot, but they can last for a while. And by “last,” I mean start to working quickly once poured into the aquarium to start getting rid of ammonia and nitrite (“last” does not mean live or die). Based on my research and experience, assuming the bacteria are the correct species, the nitrifiers can last for up to one year in a bottle. This assumes the bottle (and the bacteria) were not frozen (that’s a sure killer because it breaks the cell wall) or exposed to temperatures above 104°F for very long (a day or so). Think of the nitrifying bacteria in a bottle as a group of rechargeable batteries that are slowly losing power. They have a full charge for a while, then slowly the power starts to drain until after a year, there is very little power left.
DrTim’s Aquatics One & Only Live Nitrifying Bacteria are different than all other products, as they are the result of over 15 years of my experience and research on nitrifying bacteria, are grown on a substrate so they have the EPS to protect them and are bottled in peak condition. The results and the experience of those who have used DrTim’s Aquatics One & Only Live Nitrifying bacteria, from home aquarists to professionals in the biggest public aquaria, speak for themselves – don’t accept any other. Good fishkeeping!