U.S. Department of Defense


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Microbiological Methods 74 (2008) 17–25.


Lipid biomarker analysis has proven valuable in testing the hypothesis that attributes of the extant microbiota can directly reflect the occurrence of contaminant biodegradation. Two past research efforts have demonstrated this utility and are described here.
A 4.5 m vertical core was obtained from a diesel fuel oil contamination plume. Core material was assayed for total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) and bacterial membrane phospholipids (PLFA) via a single solvent extraction. Microbial viable biomass and the relative abundance of Gram-negative bacterial PLFA biomarkers were found to be significantly correlated with TPH concentration. The core TPH profile also revealed two distinct areas where the average TPH level of 3000 μg g-1 fell to near detection limits. Both areas were characterized by a three-fold decrease in the hexadecane/pristane ratio, indicating alkane biodegradation, and a distinct PLFA profile that showed a close similarity to the uncontaminated surface soil.
Low-order, incomplete detonations can deposit hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX) into training range surface soils. Since surface soils are exposed to temporal and diurnal moisture cycles, we investigated the effect two very different soil moisture tensions had on the in situ microbiota and RDX biodegradation. Saturated soils were characterized by rapid RDX biodegradation, 4 day half-life, a decrease in number of species detected and increase in PLFA biomarkers for Gram-negative proteobacteria (n16:1ω7c, n18:1ω9c, and n18:1ω7c) and Gram-positive firmicutes (i15:0 and a15:0). Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) profiles of endpoint microbial communities indicated a shift from 18 to 36% firmicutes, the loss of gamma-proteobacteria and the emergence of alpha-proteobacteria.
These two past research efforts demonstrated the utility of the lipid biomarker analysis in identifying microbial community characteristics that were associated with two very different soil contaminants. Lipid biomarkers defined areas of TPH biodegradation and identified community shifts as a result of soil conditions that affected explosives fate. Information like this can be used to enhance the predictive power of ecological models such as the Army Training and Testing Area Carrying Capacity for munitions model [ATTACC].