PCB breakdown in rivers depends on sediment-specific bacteria, find Carnegie Mellon U. scientists

One of Mother Nature's most promising weapons to break down persistent, toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is bacteria. Now, a study by Carnegie Mellon University scientists provides convincing evidence that how quickly a PCB gets eaten and what it becomes depends on where it settles. Using DNA fingerprinting, the Carnegie Mellon team discovered distinct bacterial populations in the first-ever side-by-side comparison of PCB-laden sediments taken from separate, contaminated rivers. The results are being reported by graduate student Christine Wang on Sunday, Aug. 22, at the 228th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Philadelphia, Pa. (ENVR 12, Loews -- Commonwealth B).

The investigators studied sediments taken from two rivers in upstate New York where local industries had released PCBs over several decades. They found that bacteria in contaminated Hudson River sediment were faster at digesting an introduced PCB compared with sluggish bacterial cousins at work in contaminated Grasse River sediment.

"Our goal is to determine the roles that different bacterial populations play in PCB breakdown by identifying the kinds of microbes in river sediments as well as their population size and how they remove chlorine atoms from the PCB structure," said William Brown, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences and a principal investigator on the study. "This work tells us that PCB-digesting microbes need to be examined in each contaminated lake or river to understand the fate of PCBs at different sites."

Co-investigators on the team include Edwin Minkley, director, Center for Biotechnology and Environmental Processes in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Jeanne VanBriesen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The team is exploring whether different nutrients or other factors could account for the variation between PCB-digesting microbial communities taken from the two rivers.

The research team ul

Contact: Lauren Ward
Carnegie Mellon University

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