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Summary

Despite the vast surface area of terrestrial plant leaves and the large microbial communities they support, little is known of the ability of leaf-associated microorganisms to access and degrade airborne pollutants. Here, we examined bacterial acquisition and degradation of phenol on leaves by an introduced phenol degrader and by natural phyllosphere communities. Whole-cell gfp-based Pseudomonas fluorescens bioreporter cells detected phenol on leaves that had previously been transiently exposed to gaseous phenol, indicating that leaves accumulated phenol; moreover, they accumulated it in sites that were accessible to epiphytic bacteria and to concentrations that were at least 10-fold higher than those in the air. After inoculated leaves were exposed to gaseous 14C-phenol, leaves harbouring the phenol-degrading Pseudomonas sp. strain CF600 released eight times more 14CO2 than did leaves harbouring a non-degrading mutant, demonstrating that CF600 actively mineralized phenol on leaves. We evaluated phenol degradation by natural microbial communities on green ash leaves that were collected from a field site rich in airborne organic pollutants. We found that significantly more phenol was mineralized by these leaves when the communities were present than by these leaves following surface sterilization. Thus, phenol-degrading organisms were present in these natural communities and were metabolically capable of phenol degradation. Collectively, these results provide the first direct evidence that bacteria on leaves can degrade an organic pollutant from the air, and indicate that bacteria on leaves could potentially contribute to the natural attenuation of organic air pollutants.