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Research article2015Peer reviewedOpen access

Trace element and temperature effects on microbial communities and links to biogas digester performance at high ammonia levels

Westerholm, Maria; Müller, Bettina; Isaksson, Simon; Schnürer, Anna


Background: High levels of ammonia and the presence of sulphide have major impacts on microbial communities and are known to cause operating problems in anaerobic degradation of protein-rich material. Operating strategies that can improve process performance in such conditions have been reported. The microbiological impacts of these are not fully understood, but their determination could help identify important factors for balanced, efficient operation. This study investigated the correlations between microbial community structure, operating parameters and digester performance in high-ammonia conditions.

Method: Continuous anaerobic co-digestion of household waste and albumin was carried out in laboratory-scale digesters at high ammonia concentrations (0.5-0.9 g NH3/L). The digesters operated for 320 days at 37 or 42 degrees C, with or without addition of a trace element mixture including iron (TE). Abundance and composition of syntrophic acetate-oxidising bacteria (SAOB) and of methanogenic and acetogenic communities were investigated throughout the study using 16S rRNA and functional gene-based molecular methods.
Results: Syntrophic acetate oxidation dominated methane formation in all digesters, where a substantial enhancement in digester performance and influence on microbial community by addition of TE was shown dependent on temperature. At 37 degrees C, TE addition supported dominance and strain richness of Methanoculleus bourgensis and altered the acetogenic community, whereas the same supplementation at 42 degrees C had a low impact on microbial community structure. Both with and without TE addition operation at 42 degrees C instead of 37 degrees C had low impact on digester performance, but considerably restricted acetogenic and methanogenic community structure, evenness and richness. The abundance of known SAOB was higher in digesters without TE addition and in digesters operating at 42 degrees C. No synergistic effect on digester performance or microbial community structure was observed on combining increased temperature with TE addition.
Conclusions: Our identification of prominent populations related to enhanced performance within methanogenic (high dominance and richness of M. bourgensis) and acetogenic communities are valuable for continued research and engineering to improve methane production in high-ammonia conditions. We also show that a temperature increase of only 5 degrees C within the mesophilic range results in an extreme dominance of one or a few species within these communities, independent of TE addition. Furthermore, functional stable operation was possible despite low microbial temporal dynamics, evenness and richness at the higher temperature.


Syntrophic acetate-oxidising bacteria; Acetogens; fhs; Methanogens; mcrA; VFA; Hydrogen

Published in

Biotechnology for Biofuels
2015, Volume: 8, article number: 154