Bacteria bottles, do they work?

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How it all started

In 1977 a scientific paper[1] was published that announced to the world that they had discovered two bacteria species that converted ammonia into nitrite and nitrate. These species were soon after believed to be Nitrosomonas europaea and Nitrobacter winogradskyi or their close relatives.

Shortly after, several commercial bacteria seeding bottles were offered to the market that claimed to shorten the period of a new tank cycling. Indeed they are still on sale today.

Perhaps the most widely sold is CYCLE produced by various companies under license. When I discovered the wonders of the aquarium hobby back in 2004 I was frustrated by the lack of information supplied on bacteria seeding products. They all claimed to shorten the normal cycle process, which normally takes 4–8 weeks to complete. But these Cycle products all seem terribly vague in their descriptions on how quickly they made the tank safe and various fish shops I contacted also seemed ignorant of the time benefits of using any of these products.

Performing my own research on the Internet revealed a similar experience. At most aquarists said they seemed to reduce the cycle time by a week or two.

Discovering the truth

Dr. Tim Hovanec, in corollary work toward his doctorate thesis, discovered by use of molecular probes that the findings reported in the 1977 paper (when such techniques were not available) were not in fact the valid bacteria for semi-closed freshwater aquaria. His and others findings were reported during the 1990s. Dr. Hovanec joined Marineland Labs and developed the first commercial product containing those bacteria which actually establish and persist indefinitely in freshwater aquaria, BIO-Spira MarineLand Labs. As these bacteria do not form spores, viable cultures of these bacteria must be kept under controlled conditions (refrigeration) to survive.

In 1991 Aquaria, Inc. (aka MarineLand Lab) investigated what the bacteria species actually was in an established aquarium and in 2001 constructed dozens of actual aquariums with fish in them and then analyzed the DNA of the bacteria to find out what it was. Their time line can be seen here.

They discovered that even if they did seed with a typical commercial bottle, then that species soon died out and was replaced with others. They claimed that they had found the true species of bacteria that thrive in aquariums and to their surprise it wasn't Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter! After finding their results they did a rare thing in the world of commercial products, they publicly published their results so that others could examine and try to verify their results.

Yes these soil based bacteria do turn ammonia into nitrite and then into nitrate. But when placed in a real aquarium they soon die out and are replaced by other species which survive for the long term.

Dr. Tim Hovanec suggests that it's the liquid food in the Cycle type products that cause a slight shortening of the cycle time and not the bacteria contained within it, because it feeds the new nitrifying bacteria!

They got a US patent 6,207,440 and 6,265,206 on these claims to enable them to bring out a commercial product in 2002 called BIO-Spira. Named after the species they found - Nitrosospira and Nitrospira. This they stated allows you to add fish to a new tank within 24 hours or less. Quite a claim!

  • Since that time, thousands of ordinary aquarists (including myself) have bought the product and verified that it does indeed work.

BIO-Spira was not however without its limitations. Consisting of live bacteria it has to be kept at refrigerator temperatures (not frozen) so that the bacteria doesn't die quickly and so had a decent shelf-life in a shop. This requires an extra expense in most shops and has perhaps limited its adoption in the average pet shop. I've only seen it in stock at high quality specialist aquarium shops. Most pet shops in the UK don't have a refrigerator, don't stock it and indeed have never heard of it! (Update: Bio-Spira turned into SafeStart by Tetra.) Tetra SafeStart does not require refrigeration, and it works like a charm for most users.

Since that time other scientific papers and patents have been released to further prove that the 1970s tests were indeed mistaken.

Other seeders arrive

SeaChem launched Stability in 2004, another bacteria seeding product that claims instant addition of fish. This product however doesn't want to release the name of the species of bacteria it holds. But does say that it also contains a third species that also claims to break down mulm. This product also has the benefit that it doesn't require cooling in the shop as the bacteria are kept in a suspended spore state until added to the aquarium. By keeping the bacteria in a spore state, the temperature of the bottle hardly matters and it can even be frozen or heated to quite high temperatures without ill effects. It also claims to have a long shelf-life of around 4 years. I've used this product myself as its more widely available in the UK than BIO-spira. It certainly prevented my 250 Litres (66 US G.) tank with its load of fish from another smaller tank from suffering any ill effects. I didn't notice any ammonia spike during my daily testing for the first 2 weeks!

In 2006, TetraAqua launched SafeStart based on MarineLand Lab's EU issued patent EP1282688. This product clearly states that it is an instant seeder and fish can be added immediately. Though it does emphasize that the user is not to overstock the tank when dosing a new tank. Which is always good advice!

There is one tiny aspect of this product which clouds it. It doesn't say it needs to be kept cool, so has it got bacteria in spore state? I can only presume not as it's only got a short shelf-life of less than a year which suggests that it contains active live bacteria and not in spore form which lasts years.

Though I can understand that Tetra don't want to put its retailers off stocking it (that's always been a problem with BIO-Spira), it just seems odd there is no requirement written down to keep it cool to extend its life.

HDL has an alternative to BIO-Spira - Right Now! which claims a 24 hour totally aerobic nitrification cycle with fish in the tank, and doesn't require refrigeration. Some early reviews seem to indicate the product works and successfully avoids a nitrite spike.


These four products do actually work!
As long as you follow their instructions then you can build a tank in a day and stock it with aquatic animals knowing that they'll still be alive by the end of the week.

  • Concerned aquarists may like to also add a few ml of Prime by Seachem each day as this makes the ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels non-toxic so even the most delicate fish can suffer no harm for the few days it takes to fully cycle a new tank.


This discovery is a tremendous advance in the welfare of raising animals in an aquarium. No longer will people have to go into a pet shop and be told to come back in a months time to get their fish after setting up their tank.

But in 2007, I find that most shops still don't know about these working products.

This is a real shame as thousands of people are still buying the old seeding products in the belief that they are doing some good. Most aquarium shops are still ignorant of these working seeding products and only the TetraAqua SafeStart product is slowly becoming available in the average shop, probably due to its brand power.

Personally I thought the trade would have quickly welcomed the ability to sell to the novice fish purchaser a product that allows the animal a chance of surviving for the first week. One shop owner informed me that they were scared of mentioning extra conditioners that would raise the cost of that initial first purchase as its usually an impulse buy. It would appear the trade is still more interested in a quick profit than the health and safely of the animal.

Tips on promoting the growth of the bacteria

  • Nitrifying bacteria do not like being in water that is too soft. So if your water has a KH of less than 3d (53.6ppm), a GH of less than 3d (53.6ppm) and a pH of less than 7, you may need to increase the KH and GH if you want faster growth of the bacteria in your filter. (See the links above for how to do this.) Though Seachem do claim that their Stability species of bacteria works well over a far wider pH and GH level.[2]
  • Keeping the water warm (over 25) promotes the speed of its reproduction.
  • Keep total ammonia levels to less than 1 ppm and any nitrite to less than 1 ppm as otherwise the high levels will suppress the growth of the nitrospira bacteria converting the nitrite into nitrate.

Article by --Quatermass 16:27, 6 May 2007 (CDT). Updated --Quatermass 15:31, 20 April 2008 (CDT) & 20:26, 3 March 2009, 6 June 2010

Links and References

  1. Wheaton, F. W. 1977. Aquacultural Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York; Wheaton, F. W., J. Hochheimer, and G. E. Kaiser. The article that started it all..
  2. Seachem forum where they talk about low pH/GH and Stability
  • Also 1991. Fixed film nitrification in filters for aquaculture, p. 272-303. In D. E. Brune and J. R. Tomasso (eds.), Aquaculture and Water Quality. The World Aquaculture Society, Baton Rouge, La.