Research Article: Similar PAH Fate in Anaerobic Digesters Inoculated with Three Microbial Communities Accumulating Either Volatile Fatty Acids or Methane

Date Published: April 15, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Florence Braun, Jérôme Hamelin, Anaïs Bonnafous, Nadine Delgenès, Jean-Philippe Steyer, Dominique Patureau, Stephen J. Johnson.


Urban sludge produced on wastewater treatment plants are often contaminated by organic pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Their removal under methanogenic conditions was already reported, but the factors influencing this removal remain unclear. Here, we determined the influence of microbial communities on PAH removal under controlled physico-chemical conditions. Twelve mesophilic anaerobic digesters were inoculated with three microbial communities extracted from ecosystems with contrasting pollution histories: a PAH contaminated soil, a PCB contaminated sediment and a low contaminated anaerobic sludge. These anaerobic digesters were operated during 100 days in continuous mode. A sterilised activated sludge, spiked with 13 PAH at concentrations usually encountered in full-scale wastewater treatment plants, was used as substrate. The dry matter and volatile solid degradation, the biogas production rate and composition, the volatile fatty acids (VFA) production and the PAH removals were monitored. Bacterial and archaeal communities were compared in abundance (qPCR), in community structure (SSCP fingerprinting) and in dominant microbial species (454-pyrosequencing). The bioreactors inoculated with the community extracted from low contaminated anaerobic sludge showed the greater methane production. The PAH removals ranged from 10 % to 30 %, respectively, for high and low molecular weight PAH, whatever the inoculums tested, and were highly correlated with the dry matter and volatile solid removals. The microbial community structure and diversity differed with the inoculum source; this difference was maintained after the 100 days of digestion. However, the PAH removal was not correlated to these diverse structures and diversities. We hence obtained three functional stable consortia with two contrasted metabolic activities, and three different pictures of microbial diversity, but similar PAH and matter removals. These results confirm that PAH removal depends on the molecule type and on the solid matter removal. But, as PAH elimination is similar whether the solid substrate is degraded into VFA or into methane, it seems that the fermentative communities are responsible for their elimination.

Partial Text

Due to both domestic and industrial human practices, organic micropollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are detected at various concentrations in many environments like soils [1,2], sediments [3–5], waters [6] and biota [7]. They are produced by partial combustion of organic matter during fossil fuel or wood combustion, waste incineration, use of coal and petroleum refining and found in coal tar, crude oil, creosote, and roofing tar, or produced by dyes, plastics, and pesticides manufacturing. Considered as persistent and bioaccumulative compounds, they are also classified as endocrine disrupters by various environmental agencies.

This study aimed at unraveling the role of the ecosystem composition and functioning on the biodegradation of persistent organic pollutants during anaerobic digestion. For the first time, series of reactors were inoculated with three different extracted microbial communities, and fed with the same sterilized, PAH spiked sludge for 100 days, with the same matter and pollutant loads. The presence of pollutants had no measurable effect on the abundance of bacterial communities, when compared to the control reactors where no pollutants were added. It suggests a non inhibitory effect of pollutant on the microbial communities.

The study on the influence of complex anaerobic microbial communities with contrasting pollution histories on organic micropollutant removals, under the same organo-mineral condition, is a challenging topic. The original experimental strategy used in this study, based on microbial communities extraction re-introduced in a single sterilized and characterized feeding sludge can meet this research objective.