The aim of this study was to characterize soils contaminated by different levels of heavy metals and hydrocarbons (Madonna Dell'Acqua, Pisa, Italy). The soils were chemically and biochemically analysed by measuring the standard chemical properties and some enzyme activities related to microbial activity (dehydrogenase activity) and the soil carbon cycle (total and extracellular β-glucosidase activities). The metabolic capacities of soil microorganisms to degrade hydrocarbons through catechol 2,3-dioxygenase were also described. The microbial diversity of contaminated and uncontaminated soils was estimated by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) of amplified 16S rDNA sequences. The PCR/single-strand conformation polymorphism (PCR/SSCP) method was used to estimate the genetic diversity of PAH-degrading genes in both contaminated and uncontaminated soils. A greater bacterial diversity and lower catechol 2,3-dioxygenase activity was detected in unpolluted soils. The complexity of the microbial community (Shannon and Simpson indices) as well as the dehydrogenase soil activity negatively correlated with contamination levels. The greatest PAH-degrading gene diversity and the most intense catechol 2,3-dioxygenase activity were found in the soils with the highest levels of hydrocarbons. Heavy metals and hydrocarbon pollution has caused a genetic and metabolic alteration in microbial communities, corresponding to a reduction in microbial activity. A multi-technique approach combining traditional biochemical methods with molecular-based techniques, along with some methodological improvements, may represent an important tool to expand our knowledge of the role of microbial diversity in contaminated soil.
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