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Microbial communities in long-term heavy metal contaminated ombrotrophic peats

Linton, Patricia E. and Shotbolt, Laura A. and Thomas, Andrew D. (2007) Microbial communities in long-term heavy metal contaminated ombrotrophic peats. ISSN 0049-6979

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Abstract

High concentrations of heavy metals are known to be toxic to many soil organisms. The effects of long-term exposure to lower levels of metals on the soil microbial community are, however, less well understood. The southern Pennines of the U.K. are characterised by expanses of ombrotrophic peat soils that have experienced deposition of high levels of heavy metals since the mid to late 1800s. Concentrations of metals in the peat remain high but the effect of the contamination on the in-situ microbial communities is unknown. Geochemical and molecular polymerase chain reaction-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (PCR-DGGE) and sequencing techniques were used to derive new information on the metal chemistry and microbial populations in peat soils from six locations in the southern Pennines. All sites were highly acidic (pH 3.00–3.14) with high concentrations of potentially toxic heavy metals, particularly porewater Zn and particulate-associated Pb. The results also reveal a split in site characteristics between the most polluted sites with the highest levels of bioavailable metals (Bleaklow, FeatherBed Moss and White Hill) and those with much lower bioavailable metals (Cowms Moor, Holme Moss and Round Hill). There was no difference in the number of dominant bacterial species between the sites but there were significant differences in the species composition. At the three sites with the highest levels of bioavailable metals, bacterial species with a high similarity to acidophilic sulphur- and iron-oxidizing bacteria and those from high metal environments were detected. The transformations carried out by these metal mobilising and acid producing bacteria may make heavy metals more bioavailable and therefore more toxic to higher organisms. Bacteria with similarity to those typically found in forest and grassland soils were documented at the three sites with the lowest levels of bioavailable metals. The data highlight the need for further studies to elucidate the species diversity and functionality of bacteria in heavy metal contaminated peats in order to assess implications for moorland restoration.

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