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A field-scale fixed bed bioreactor was used to successfully treat an MTBE-contaminated aquifer in North Hollywood, CA without requiring inoculation with introduced bacteria. Native bacteria from the MTBE-impacted aquifer rapidly colonized the bioreactor, entering the bioreactor in the contaminated groundwater pumped from the site, and biodegraded MTBE with greater than 99 % removal efficiency. DNA sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene identified MTBE-degrading bacteria Methylibium petroleiphilum in the bioreactor. Quantitative PCR showed M. petroleiphilum enriched by three orders of magnitude in the bioreactor above densities pre-existing in the groundwater. Because treatment was carried out by indigenous rather than introduced organisms, regulatory approval was obtained for implementation of a full-scale bioreactor to continue treatment of the aquifer. In addition, after confirmation of MTBE removal in the bioreactor to below maximum contaminant limit levels (MCL; MTBE = 5 μg L−1), treated water was approved for reinjection back into the aquifer rather than requiring discharge to a water treatment system. This is the first treatment system in California to be approved for reinjection of biologically treated effluent into a drinking water aquifer. This study demonstrated the potential for using native microbial communities already present in the aquifer as an inoculum for ex-situ bioreactors, circumventing the need to establish non-native, non-acclimated and potentially costly inoculants. Understanding and harnessing the metabolic potential of native organisms circumvents some of the issues associated with introducing non-native organisms into drinking water aquifers, and can provide a low-cost and efficient remediation technology that can streamline future bioremediation approval processes.


Accepted version. Biodegradation, Vol. 25, No. 1 (February 2014): 41-53. DOI. © 2014 Springer. Used with permission.

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