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Featured article / Biodegradation - Hydrocarbons
Hydrocarbons are major constituents of crude oil and petroleum. They can be biodegraded by naturally-occurring microorganisms in freshwater and marine environments under a variety of aerobic and anaerobic conditions. The ability of microorganisms - bacteria, archaea, fungi, or algae - to break down hydrocarbons is the basis for natural and enhanced bioremediation. To promote biodegradation, amendments such as nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer are often added to stimulate microbial growth and metabolism.
Hydrocarbons are readily degraded under aerobic conditions. Bacteria, fungi, and algae are all capable of aerobic hydrocarbon degradation. In general, alkenes (hydrocarbons containing double bonds) and short-chain alkanes (hydrocarbons containing only single bonds) are the most easily degraded, followed by branched alkanes (alkanes with side chains) and then aromatics (hydrocarbons in a stable ring structure).
Hydrocarbon degradation under anaerobic conditions is often slower compared to aerobic degradation, due to less favorable reaction energetics with alternate electron acceptors. Despite this limitation, both facultative and obligately anaerobic bacteria and archaea are known to degrade hydrocarbons without oxygen. Such microorgansims develop readily at hydrocarbon-impacted sites owing to rapid consumption of oxygen, and therefore anaerobic processes significantly impact the fate of hydrocarbons in the environment.
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