Dynamic changes in anaerobic digester metabolic pathways and microbial populations during acclimatisation to increasing ammonium concentrations

Wei Zhang, Anna M Alessi, Sonia Heaven, James P J Chong, Charles J Banks

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Transitions in microbial community structure in response to increasing ammonia concentrations were determined by monitoring mesophilic anaerobic digesters seeded with a predominantly acetoclastic methanogenic community from a sewage sludge digester. Ammonia concentration was raised by switching the feed to source segregated domestic food waste and applying two organic loading rates (OLR) and hydraulic retention times (HRT) in paired digesters. One of each pair was dosed with trace elements (TE) known to be essential to the transition, with the other unsupplemented digester acting as a control. Samples taken during the trial were used to determine the metabolic pathway to methanogenesis using 14C labelled acetate. Partitioning of 14C between the product gases was interpreted via an equation to indicate the proportion produced by acetoclastic and hydrogenotrophic routes. Archaeal and selected bacterial groups were identified by 16S rRNA sequencing, to determine relative abundance and diversity. Acclimatisation for digesters with TE was relatively smooth, but OLR and HRT influenced both metabolic route and community structure. The 14C ratio could be used quantitatively and, when interpreted alongside archaeal community structure, showed that at longer HRT and lower loading Methanobacteriaceae were dominant and hydrogenotrophic activity accounted for 77% of methane production. At the higher OLR and shorter HRT, Methanosarcinaceae were dominant with the 14C ratio indicating simultaneous production of methane by acetoclastic and hydrogenotrophic pathways: the first reported observation of this in digestion under mesophilic conditions. Digesters without TE supplementation showed similar initial changes but, as expected failed to complete the transition to stable operation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)409-419
Number of pages11
JournalWaste Management
Early online date4 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021

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