Natural attenuation of lead by microbial manganese oxides in a karst aquifer

Laura Newsome, Charles G. D. Bacon, Hokyung Song, Yunyao Luo, David M. Sherman, Jonathan Lloyd

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Lead is a toxic environmental contaminant associated with current and historic mine sites. Here we studied the natural attenuation of Pb in a limestone cave system that receives drainage from the ancient Priddy Mineries, UK. Extensive deposits of manganese oxides were observed to be forming on the cave walls and as coatings in the stream beds. Analysis of these deposits identified them as birnessite (δ-MnO2), with some extremely high concentrations of sorbed Pb (up to 56 wt. %) also present. We hypothesised that these cave crusts were actively being formed by microbial Mn(II)-oxidation, and to investigate this the microbial communities were characterised by DNA sequencing, enrichment and isolation experiments. The birnessite deposits contained abundant and diverse prokaryotes and fungi, with ~5 % of prokaryotes and ~10 % of fungi closely related to known heterotrophic Mn(II)- oxidisers. A substantial proportion (up to 17 %) of prokaryote sequences were assigned to groups known as autotrophic ammonia and nitrite oxidisers, suggesting that nitrogen cycling may play an important role in contributing energy and carbon to the cave crust microbial communities and consequently the formation of Mn(IV)-oxides and Pb attenuation. Enrichment and isolation experiments showed that the birnessite deposits contained Mn(II)- oxidising microorganisms, and two isolates (Streptomyces sp. and Phyllobacterium sp.) could oxidise Mn(II) in the presence of 0.1 mM Pb. Supplying the enrichment cultures with acetate as a source of energy and carbon stimulated Mn(II)-oxidation, but excess organics in the form of glucose generated aqueous Mn(II), likely via microbial Mn(IV)-reduction. In this karst cave, microbial Mn(II)-oxidation contributes to the active sequestration and natural attenuation of Pb from contaminated waters, and therefore may be considered a natural analogue for the design of wastewater remediation systems and for understanding the geochemical controls on karst groundwater quality, a resource relied upon by billions of people across the globe
Original languageEnglish
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 7 Sept 2020


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