Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Engineering - Biochemical Engineering


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Yarrow Nelson


The potential for biodegradation of contaminants in soil was assessed using an array of molecular methods, including terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (TRFLP), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), and traditional culturing techniques combined with sequencing of the 16S or ITS regions of the cultured bacteria and fungi. Soil was collected from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL), which was the site of numerous liquid-propulsion rocket engine tests as well as nuclear energy research and development, which led to contamination of the soil with a wide variety of constituents. The contaminants of interest (COIs) at this site include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and non-PAH petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs). Various metals, most notably mercury and silver, are also present on the site. The purpose of this study was to determine if biodegradation is contributing to natural attenuation of contaminants in the soil, what organisms are likely causing biodegradation, and what rate(s) can be expected in the future. A literature review was conducted to investigate the chemical properties of theses COIs, their toxicity, and abiotic and biotic degradation. This research concluded that these COIs can be biodegraded if the right bacteria and/or fungi are present and active in the soil in sufficient numbers under the right conditions. Many known biodegraders of the COIs were identified in the literature review along with the most common pathways of biodegradation and degradation rates observed in field and laboratory studies.

Soil was collected from 30 sample locations, with 3 sets of 10 samples containing high concentrations of one COI but low concentration of the others. PHCs and PAHs were found to be largely co-located, so 10 samples were selected for both of them. The remaining 20 samples were split evenly between PCBs and dioxins. DNA was extracted directly from all 30 soil samples and amplified using PCR for TRFLP analyses. Two soil samples were sent to Microbial Insights® for qPCR analysis. This analysis included 18 gene targets for the degradation of PHCs and PAHs, as well as the target gene for Dehalococcoides (an anaerobic dechlorinating bacteria). For each culturing a model chemical was selected to represent each COI and added to Bushnell-Haas agar plates containing no added carbon source other than the model compounds. The model chemicals were No. 2 diesel fuel for PHCs, naphthalene for PAHs, PCB #1 (monochloro) for PCBs, and dibenzofuran for dioxin. These plates were used to screen for biodegrading bacteria and fungi for each COI. Once cultured, 16S and ITS sequencing were used to identify these potential COI degraders and determine what TRFLP peak they would produce. The identity of isolated organisms was compared to information from the literature to assess the likelihood of COI biodegradation at SSFL.

From the culturing experiments, 45 organisms were isolated, sequenced, and identified. The 45 included 14 unique bacteria and seven unique fungi. Of these, 10 different bacterial species and 5 different fungal species have been reported as COI biodegraders or belong to genera that contain reported COI biodegraders. TRFLP analysis revealed that the soil type has more effect on the microbial population than the presence of any of the COIs. There were no specific peaks that were significantly correlated to any specific COI. The peak distributions were fairly even, indicating a large amount of biodiversity in the microbial populations of the soil samples. The qPCR analysis revealed that SSFL soils contain significant populations of microbes that can degrade PHCs aerobically. Anaerobic PHC, anaerobic PAH, and aerobic PAH targets were not detected. A small amount of Dehalococcoides was detected in one of the samples.

Collectively this study suggests that microbes present in SSFL soils are capable of biodegrading PHCs, and the genes for such biodegradation are actively being expressed. With the exception of a small population of Dehalococcoides, bacteria associated with the biodegradation of PAHs, PCBs, and/or dioxins were not detected. However, several strains of fungi were identified which have been reported to mediate cometabolic biodegradation of these compounds. Since these fungi do not require anaerobic conditions, they are more likely to contribute to natural attenuation than bacterial reductive dechlorination. Laboratory microcosm experiments are suggested for estimating rates of biodegradation at SSFL under natural attenuation conditions. Bioaugmentation and/or biostimulation methods should also be investigated in addition of natural attenuation. These microcosm experiments are currently underway in a companion study at Cal Poly by graduate student Mackenzie Billings.