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Abstract

Ecotoxicological effects of creosote contamination on benthic bacterial communities in the Elizabeth River, Virginia were investigated using both structural and functional microbial parameters. Parameters included direct counts, viable counts of heterotrophs and “cresol-utilizers”, and bacterial production determined using the tritiated thymidine uptake method. Ancillary data included temperature, salinity, Eh profiles, concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sediment granulometry and total organic carbon. Two reference stations in relatively nonpolluted areas were sampled for comparative data. Results indicated that cell specific and total heterotrophic bacterial production were depressed in a dose-dependent manner with increasing sediment PAH concentrations. Sediment properties and seasonal changes in temperature appeared to modify the effects of PAHs on bacterial production. Direct bacterial counts and viable counts of total heterotrophs were depressed in the most contaminated sediments. Evidence of creosote adaptation was equivocal, with cresol-utilizer densities not significantly elevated at contaminated stations. The presence of creosote was associated with shifts of Eh toward more negative values compared to nonpolluted sediments. Toxicants which reduce benthic bacterial production may indirectly impact other trophic groups through aberrant cycling of carbon or nutrients. Of the parameters examined, the tritiated thymidine production assay was found to be the most sensitive for detection of ecotoxicological effects.