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Front Microbiol. 2011 Nov 21;2:233. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2011.00233. eCollection 2011.

A cell extraction method for oily sediments.

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  • 1Geomicrobiology Group, Institute of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Potsdam Potsdam, Germany.


Hydrocarbons can be found in many different habitats and represent an important carbon source for microbes. As fossil fuels, they are also an important economical resource and through natural seepage or accidental release they can be major pollutants. DNA-specific stains and molecular probes bind to hydrocarbons, causing massive background fluorescence, thereby hampering cell enumeration. The cell extraction procedure of Kallmeyer et al. (2008) separates the cells from the sediment matrix. In principle, this technique can also be used to separate cells from oily sediments, but it was not originally optimized for this application. Here we present a modified extraction method in which the hydrocarbons are removed prior to cell extraction. Due to the reduced background fluorescence the microscopic image becomes clearer, making cell identification, and enumeration much easier. Consequently, the resulting cell counts from oily samples treated according to our new protocol are significantly higher than those treated according to Kallmeyer et al. (2008). We tested different amounts of a variety of solvents for their ability to remove hydrocarbons and found that n-hexane and - in samples containing more mature oils - methanol, delivered the best results. However, as solvents also tend to lyse cells, it was important to find the optimum solvent to sample ratio, at which hydrocarbon extraction is maximized and cell lysis minimized. A volumetric ratio of 1:2-1:5 between a formalin-fixed sediment slurry and solvent delivered highest cell counts. Extraction efficiency was around 30-50% and was checked on both oily samples spiked with known amounts of E. coli cells and oil-free samples amended with fresh and biodegraded oil. The method provided reproducible results on samples containing very different kinds of oils with regard to their degree of biodegradation. For strongly biodegraded oil MeOH turned out to be the most appropriate solvent, whereas for less biodegraded samples n-hexane delivered best results.


cell enumeration; cell separation; hydrocarbons; subsurface microbiology

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