Reactor staging influences microbial community composition and diversity of denitrifying MBBRs- Implications on pharmaceutical removal

Elena Torresi, Arda Gülay, Fabio Polesel, Marlene M. Jensen, Magnus Christensson, Barth F. Smets, Benedek Gy Plósz

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The subdivision of biofilm reactor in two or more stages (i.e., reactor staging) represents an option for process optimisation of biological treatment. In our previous work, we showed that the gradient of influent organic substrate availability (induced by the staging) can influence the microbial activity (i.e., denitrification and pharmaceutical biotransformation kinetics) of a denitrifying three-stage Moving Bed Biofilm Reactor (MBBR) system. However, it is unclear whether staging and thus the long-term exposure to varying organic carbon type and loading influences the microbial community structure and diversity. In this study, we investigated biofilm structure and diversity in the three-stage MBBR system (S) compared to a single-stage configuration (U) and their relationship with microbial functions. Results from 16S rRNA amplicon libraries revealed a significantly higher microbial richness in the staged MBBR (at 99% sequence similarity) compared to single-stage MBBR. A more even and diverse microbial community was selected in the last stage of S (S3), likely due to exposure to carbon limitation during continuous-flow operation. A core of OTUs was shared in both systems, consisting of Burkholderiales, Xanthomonadales, Flavobacteriales and Sphingobacteriales, while MBBR staging selected for specific taxa (i.e., Candidate division WS6 and Deinococcales). Results from quantitative PCR (qPCR) showed that S3 exhibited the lowest abundance of 16S rRNA but the highest abundance of atypical nosZ, suggesting a selection of microbes with more diverse N-metabolism (i.e., incomplete denitrifiers) in the stage exposed to the lowest carbon availability. A positive correlation (p < 0.05) was observed between removal rate constants of several pharmaceuticals with abundance of relevant denitrifying genes, but not with biodiversity. Despite the previously suggested positive relationship between microbial diversity and functionality in macrobial and microbial ecosystems, this was not observed in the current study, indicating a need to further investigate structure-function relationships for denitrifying systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)333-345
Number of pages13
JournalWater Research
Early online date7 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2018


  • Heterotrophic denitrification
  • Micropollutant removal
  • Moving bed biofilm reactors
  • Organic carbon
  • Structure-function relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modelling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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