Microorganisms indigenous to stream and lake bed sediments, collected from 11 sites throughout the United States, demonstrated significant mineralization of the fuel oxygenate, methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Mineralization of [U-14C]MTBE to 14CO2 ranged from 15 to 66% over 50 days and did not differ significantly between sediments collected from MTBE contaminated sites and from sites with no history of MTBE exposure. This result suggests that even the microbial communities indigenous to newly contaminated surface water systems will exhibit some innate ability to attenuate MTBE under aerobic conditions. The magnitude of MTBE mineralization was related to the sediment grain size distribution. A pronounced, inverse correlation (p < 0.001; r2 = 0.73) was observed between the final recovery of 14CO2 and the percentage content of silt and clay sized grains (grain diameter < 0.125 mm). The results of this study indicate that the microorganisms that inhabit the bed sediments of streams and lakes can degrade MTBE efficiently and that this capability is widespread in the environment. Thus aerobic bed sediment microbial processes may provide a significant environmental sink for MTBE in surface water systems throughout the United States and may contribute to the reported transience of MTBE in some surface waters.
Additional publication details
Widespread potential for microbial MTBE degradation in surface-water sediments