Microbial Biogeography Across a Full-Scale Wastewater Treatment Plant Transect: Evidence for Immigration between Coupled Processes


George F. Well, Cindy H. Wu, Yvette M. Piceno, Brad Eggleston, Eoin L. Brodie, Todd Z. Desantis, Gary L. Andersen, Terry C. Hazen, Christopher A. Francis, Craig S. Criddle


Wastewater treatment plants use a variety of bioreactor types and configurations to remove organic matter and nutrients. Little is known regarding the effects of different configurations and within-plant immigration on microbial community dynamics. Previously, we found that the structure of ammonia-oxidizing bacterial (AOB) communities in a full-scale dispersed growth activated sludge bioreactor correlated strongly with levels of NO2 (-) entering the reactor from an upstream trickling filter. Here, to further examine this puzzling association, we profile within-plant microbial biogeography (spatial variation) and test the hypothesis that substantial microbial immigration occurs along a transect (raw influent, trickling filter biofilm, trickling filter effluent, and activated sludge) at the same full-scale wastewater treatment plant. AOB amoA gene abundance increased >30-fold between influent and trickling filter effluent concomitant with NO2 (-) production, indicating unexpected growth and activity of AOB within the trickling filter. Nitrosomonas europaea was the dominant AOB phylotype in trickling filter biofilm and effluent, while a distinct “Nitrosomonas-like” lineage dominated in activated sludge. Prior time series indicated that this “Nitrosomonas-like” lineage was dominant when NO2 (-) levels in the trickling filter effluent (i.e., activated sludge influent) were low, while N. europaea became dominant in the activated sludge when NO2 (-) levels were high. This is consistent with the hypothesis that NO2 (-) production may cooccur with biofilm sloughing, releasing N. europaea from the trickling filter into the activated sludge bioreactor. Phylogenetic microarray (PhyloChip) analyses revealed significant spatial variation in taxonomic diversity, including a large excess of methanogens in the trickling filter relative to activated sludge and attenuation of Enterobacteriaceae across the transect, and demonstrated transport of a highly diverse microbial community via the trickling filter effluent to the activated sludge bioreactor. Our results provide compelling evidence that substantial immigration between coupled process units occurs and may exert significant influence over microbial community dynamics within staged bioreactors.

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Wells GF, Wu CH, Piceno YM, Eggleston B, Brodie EL, DeSantis TZ, Andersen GL, Hazen TC, Francis CA, Criddle CS. 2014. Microbial biogeography across a full-scale wastewater treatment plant transect: Evidence for immigration between coupled processes. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 98:4723-4736.