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Appl Environ Microbiol. 1998 Nov;64(11):4180-4.

Biodegradation of aromatic hydrocarbons in an extremely acidic environment

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Center for Environmental Biotechnology, The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996, USA.


The potential for biodegradation of aromatic hydrocarbons was evaluated in soil samples recovered along gradients of both contaminant levels and pH values existing downstream of a long-term coal pile storage basin. pH values for areas greatly impacted by runoff from the storage basin were 2.0. Even at such a reduced pH, the indigenous microbial community was metabolically active, showing the ability to oxidize more than 40% of the parent hydrocarbons, naphthalene and toluene, to carbon dioxide and water. Treatment of the soil samples with cycloheximide inhibited mineralization of the aromatic substrates. DNA hybridization analysis indicated that whole-community nucleic acids recovered from these samples did not hybridize with genes, such as nahA, nahG, nahH, todC1C2, and tomA, that encode common enzymes from neutrophilic bacteria. Since these data suggested that the degradation of aromatic compounds may involve a microbial consortium instead of individual acidophilic bacteria, experiments using microorganisms isolated from these samples were initiated. While no defined mixed cultures were able to evolve 14CO2 from labeled substrates in these mineralization experiments, an undefined mixed culture including a fungus, a yeast, and several bacteria successfully metabolized approximately 27% of supplied naphthalene after 1 week. This study shows that biodegradation of aromatic hydrocarbons can occur in environments with extremely low pH values.


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