Community Structure in Methanogenic Enrichments Provides Insight into Syntrophic Interactions in Hydrocarbon-Impacted Environments

Jane Fowler, Courtney R. A. Toth, Lisa M. Gieg

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The methanogenic biodegradation of crude oil involves the conversion of hydrocarbons to methanogenic substrates by syntrophic bacteria and subsequent methane production by methanogens. Assessing the metabolic roles played by various microbial species in syntrophic communities remains a challenge, but such information has important implications for bioremediation and microbial enhanced energy recovery technologies. Many factors such as changing environmental conditions or substrate variations can influence the composition and biodegradation capabilities of syntrophic microbial communities in hydrocarbon-impacted environments. In this study, a methanogenic crude oil-degrading enrichment culture was successively transferred onto the single long chain fatty acids palmitate or stearate followed by their parent alkanes, hexadecane or octadecane, respectively, in order to assess the impact of different substrates on microbial community composition and retention of hydrocarbon biodegradation genes. 16S rRNA gene sequencing showed that a reduction in substrate diversity resulted in a corresponding loss of microbial diversity, but that hydrocarbon biodegradation genes (such as assA/masD encoding alkylsuccinate synthase) could be retained within a community even in the absence of hydrocarbon substrates. Despite substrate-related diversity changes, all communities were dominated by hydrogenotrophic and acetotrophic methanogens along with bacteria including Clostridium sp., members of the Deltaproteobacteria, and a number of other phyla. Microbial co-occurrence network analysis revealed a dense network of interactions amongst syntrophic bacteria and methanogens that were maintained despite changes in the substrates for methanogenesis. Our results reveal the effect of substrate diversity loss on microbial community diversity, indicate that many syntrophic interactions are stable over time despite changes in substrate pressure, and show that syntrophic interactions amongst bacteria themselves are as important as interactions between bacteria and methanogens in complex methanogenic communities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number562
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Co-occurrence network analysis
  • Hydrocarbon biodegradation
  • Methanogenesis
  • Microbial community composition
  • Syntrophy

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