Non-Significance of Rhizosphere Degradation During Phytoremediation of MTBE

A. Ramaswami, E. Rubin, S. Bonola

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    Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is a gasoline additive associated with groundwater pollution at gas station sites. Previous research on poplar trees in hydroponic systems suggests that phytovolatilization is an effective mechanism for phytoremediation of MTBE (Rubin and Ramaswami, 2001), but the potential for microbial degradation of MTBE in the rhizosphere of trees had not been assessed. MTBE had largely been considered recalcitrant to microbial processes, but recent fieldwork suggests rapid biodegradation may occur in certain cases. This paper investigates the potential for rhizosphere degradation of MTBE at time frames relevant for phytoremediation. Three experiments were conducted at different levels of aggregation to examine possible degradation of MTBE by rhizosphere microorganisms that had been acclimated to low levels of MTBE for 6 weeks. MTBE soil die-away studies, conducted with both poplar trees and fescue grass, found no significant differences between MTBE concentration in vegetated and unvegetated soils over a two-week attenuation period. Closed chamber tests comparing hydroponic and rhizospheric poplar tree systems also showed essentially complete recovery of MTBE mass in both systems, suggesting an absence of degradation. Finally, rhizosphere microbes tested in aerated bioreactors were found to be thriving and metabolizing root materials, but did not show measurable degradation of MTBE. In all tests, the MTBE degradation product, Tert Butyl Alcohol (TBA), was not detected. The insignificance of MTBE degradation by rhizosphere microorganisms suggests that plant processes be the primary focus of further research on MTBE phytoremediation.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)315-331
    Number of pages17
    JournalInternational Journal of Phytoremediation
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - 2003

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    This project was funded by a grant (9806228) from the National Science Foundation POWRE program.


    • Bioremediation
    • MTBE
    • Phytoremediation
    • Rhizosphere degradation


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