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Detection of anaerobic toluene and hydrocarbon degraders in contaminated aquifers using benzylsuccinate synthase (bssA) genes as a functional marker


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Benzylsuccinate synthase (Bss) is the key enzyme of anaerobic toluene degradation and has been found in all anaerobic toluene degrading bacterial isolates tested. However, only a few pure cultures capable of anaerobic toluene oxidation are available to date, and it is important to understand the relevance of these model organisms for in situ bioremediation of hydrocarbon-contaminated aquifers. Due to their phylogenetic dispersal, it is not possible to specifically target anaerobic toluene degraders using marker rRNA genes. We therefore established an assay targeting a ∼794 bp fragment within the Bss alpha-subunit (bssA) gene, which allows for the specific detection and affiliation of both known and unknown anaerobic degraders. Three distinct tar-oil-contaminated aquifer sites were screened for intrinsic bssA gene pools in order to identify and compare the diversity of hydrocarbon degraders present at these selected sites. We were able to show that local diversity patterns of degraders were entirely distinct, apparently highly specialized and well-adapted to local biogeochemical settings. Discovered at one of the sites were bssA genes closely related to that of Geobacter spp., which provides evidence for an importance of iron reduction for toluene degradation in these sediments. Retrieved from the other two sites, dominated by sulfate reduction, were previously unidentified bssA genes and also deeply branching putative bssA homologues. We provide evidence for a previously unrecognized diversity of anaerobic toluene degraders and also of other hydrocarbon degraders using fumarate-adding key reactions in contaminated aquifers. These findings enhance our current understanding of intrinsic hydrocarbon-degrading microbial communities in perturbed aquifers and may have potential for the future assessment and prediction of natural attenuation based on degradation genes.

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