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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Microbial succession and denitrifying woodchip bioreactor performance at low water temperatures

Hellman, Maria; Juhanson, Jaanis; Wallnas, Felicia; Herbert, Roger B.; Hallin, Sara


Mining activities are increasingly recognized for contributing to nitrogen (N) pollution and possibly also to emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) due to undetonated, N-based explosives. A woodchip denitrifying bioreactor, installed to treat nitrate-rich leachate from waste rock dumps in northern Sweden, was monitored for two years to determine the spatial and temporal distribution of microbial communities, including the genetic potential for different N transformation processes, in pore water and woodchips and how this related to reactor N removal capacity. About 80 and 65 % of the nitrate was removed during the first and second operational year, respectively. There was a succession in the microbial community over time and in space along the reactor length in both pore water and woodchips, which was reflected in reactor performance. Nitrate ammonification likely had minimal impact on N removal efficiency due to the low production of ammonium and low abundance of the key gene nrfA in ammonifiers. Nitrite and N2O were formed in the bioreactor and released in the effluent water, although direct N2O emissions from the surface was low. That these unwanted reactive N species were produced at different times and locations in the reactor indicate that the denitrification pathway was temporally as well as spatially separated along the reactor length. We conclude that the succession of microbial communities in woodchip denitrifying bioreactors treating mining water develops slowly at low temperature, which impacts reactor performance.


Denitrifying bioreactor; Woodchips; Denitrification; DNRA; N 2 O; Microbial community

Published in

Journal of Environmental Management
2024, Volume: 356, article number: 120607