Diversity of planktonic and attached bacterial communities in a phenol-contaminated sandstone aquifer

Polluted aquifers contain indigenous microbial communities with the potential for in situ bioremediation. However, the effect of hydrogeochemical gradients on in situ microbial communities (especially at the plume fringe, where natural attenuation is higher) is still not clear. In this study, we used culture-independent techniques to investigate the diversity of in situ planktonic and attached bacterial communities in a phenol-contaminated sandstone aquifer. Within the upper and lower plume fringes, denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis profiles indicated that planktonic community structure was influenced by the steep hydrogeochemical gradient of the plume rather than the spatial location in the aquifer. Under the same hydrogeochemical conditions (in the lower plume fringe, 30 m below ground level), 16S rRNA gene cloning and sequencing showed that planktonic and attached bacterial communities differed markedly and that the attached community was more diverse. The 16S rRNA gene phylogeny also suggested that a phylogenetically diverse bacterial community operated at this depth (30 mbgl), with biodegradation of phenolic compounds by nitrate-reducing Azoarcus and Acidovorax strains potentially being an important process. The presence of acetogenic and sulphate-reducing bacteria only in the planktonic clone library indicates that some natural attenuation processes may occur preferentially in one of the two growth phases (attached or planktonic). Therefore, this study has provided a better understanding of the microbial ecology of this phenol-contaminated aquifer, and it highlights the need for investigating both planktonic and attached microbial communities when assessing the potential for natural attenuation in contaminated aquifers.