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Research article2016Peer reviewedOpen access

Bacterial community composition and fhs profiles of low- and high-ammonia biogas digesters reveal novel syntrophic acetate-oxidising bacteria

Müller, Bettina; Sun, Li; Westerholm, Maria; Schnürer, Anna


Background: Syntrophic acetate oxidation (SAO) is the predominant pathway for methane production in high ammonia anaerobic digestion processes. The bacteria (SAOB) occupying this niche and the metabolic pathway are poorly understood. Phylogenetic diversity and strict cultivation requirements hinder comprehensive research and discovery of novel SAOB. Most SAOB characterised to date are affiliated to the physiological group of acetogens. Formyltetrahydrofolate synthetase is a key enzyme of both acetogenic and SAO metabolism. The encoding fhs gene has therefore been identified as a suitable functional marker, using a newly designed primer pair. In this comparative study, we used a combination of terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism profiling, clone-based comparison, qPCR and Illumina amplicon sequencing to assess the bacterial community and acetogenic sub-community prevailing in high- and low-ammonia laboratory-scale digesters in order to delineate potential SAOB communities. Potential candidates identified were further tracked in a number of low-ammonia and high-ammonia laboratory-scale and large-scale digesters in order to reveal a potential function in SAO.Results: All methodical approaches revealed significant changes in the bacterial community composition concurrently with increasing ammonia and predominance of SAO. The acetogenic community under high ammonia conditions was revealed to be generally heterogeneous, but formed distinct phylogenetic clusters. The clusters differed clearly from those found under low-ammonia conditions and represented an acetogenic assemblage unique for biogas processes and recurring in a number of high-ammonia processes, indicating potential involvement in SAO.Conclusions: The phylogenetic affiliation and population dynamics observed point to a key community, belonging mainly to the Clostridia class, in particular to the orders Clostridiales and Thermoanaerobacterales, which appear to specialise in SAO rather than being metabolically versatile. Overall, the results reported here provide evidence of functional importance of the bacterial families identified in high-ammonia systems and extend existing knowledge of bacterial and acetogenic assemblages at low and high ammonia levels. This information will be of help in monitoring and assessing the impacts on the SAOB community in order to identify characteristics of robust and productive high ammonia biogas processes.


Acetogens; Formyltetrahydrofolate synthetase; Syntrophic acetate oxidation; Ammonia inhibition; Illumina amplicon sequencing; Biogas production; Anaerobic degradation

Published in

Biotechnology for Biofuels
2016, Volume: 9, article number: 48