Dynamic shifts within volatile fatty acid–degrading microbial communities indicate process imbalance in anaerobic digesters

Prince P. Mathai, Melinda S. Nicholes, Kaushik Venkiteshwaran, Clairessa M. Brown, Rachel L. Morris, Daniel H. Zitomer, James S. Maki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Buildup of volatile fatty acids (VFAs) in anaerobic digesters (ADs) often results in acidification and process failure. Understanding the dynamics of microbial communities involved in VFA degradation under stable and overload conditions may help optimize anaerobic digestion processes. In this study, five triplicate mesophilic completely mixed AD sets were operated at different organic loading rates (OLRs; 1–6 g chemical oxygen demand [COD] LR −1day−1), and changes in the composition and abundance of VFA-degrading microbial communities were monitored using amplicon sequencing and taxon-specific quantitative PCRs, respectively. AD sets operated at OLRs of 1–4 g COD LR −1day−1 were functionally stable throughout the operational period (120 days) whereas process instability (characterized by VFA buildup, pH decline, and decreased methane production rate) occurred in digesters operated at ≥ 5 g COD LR −1day−1. Though microbial taxa involved in propionate (Syntrophobacter and Pelotomaculum) and butyrate (Syntrophomonas) degradation were detected across all ADs, their abundance decreased with increasing OLR. The overload conditions also inhibited the proliferation of the acetoclastic methanogen, Methanosaeta, and caused a microbial community shift to acetate oxidizers (Tepidanaerobacter acetatoxydans) and hydrogenotrophic methanogens (Methanoculleus). This study’s results highlight the importance of operating ADs with conditions that promote the maintenance of microbial communities involved in VFA degradation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4563-4575
Number of pages13
JournalApplied Microbiology and Biotechnology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Mike Dollhopf (Water Quality Center, Marquette University) for his assistance and the operators of full-scale digesters for providing biomass samples.

Funding Information:
This work was supported in part by WE Energies and Marquette University. Acknowledgments

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.


  • Amplicon sequencing
  • Organic loading rate
  • Quantitative PCR
  • Syntrophic microbial communities
  • Volatile fatty acids

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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