Biodegradation of low-molecular-weight alkanes under mesophilic, sulfate-reducing conditions: metabolic intermediates and community patterns


  • Editor: Alfons Stams

  • Present address: Lisa M. Gieg, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4.

Correspondence: Mostafa S. Elshahed, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Oklahoma State University, 1110 S Innovation way, Stillwater, OK 74074, USA. Tel.: +1 405 744 3005; fax: +1 405 744 1112; e-mail:


We evaluated the ability of the native microbiota in a low-temperature, sulfidic natural hydrocarbon seep (Zodletone) to metabolize short-chain hydrocarbons. n-Propane and n-pentane were metabolized under sulfate-reducing conditions in initial enrichments and in sediment-free subcultures. Carbon isotope analysis of residual propane in active enrichments showed that propane became enriched in 13C by 6.7 (±2.0)‰, indicating a biological mechanism for propane loss. The detection of n-propylsuccinic and isopropylsuccinic acids in active propane-degrading enrichments provided evidence for anaerobic biodegradation via a fumarate addition pathway. A eubacterial 16S rRNA gene survey of sediment-free enrichments showed that the majority of the sequenced clones were phylogenetically affiliated within the Deltaproteobacteria. Such sequences were most closely affiliated with clones retrieved from hydrocarbon-impacted marine ecosystems, volatile fatty acid metabolizers, hydrogen users, and with a novel Deltaproteobacterial lineage. Other cloned sequences were affiliated with the Firmicutes and Chloroflexi phyla. The sequenced clones were only distantly (<95%) related to other reported low-molecular-weight alkane-degrading sulfate-reducing populations. This work documents the potential for anaerobic short-chain n-alkane metabolism for the first time in a terrestrial environment, provides evidence for a fumarate addition mechanism for n-propane activation under these conditions, and reveals microbial community members present in such enrichments.