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Phytoremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons in tropical coastal soils II. microbial response to plant roots and contaminant

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Goal, Scope and Background

The goal of this study was to understand the interaction between plants and microorganisms during petroleum-hydrocarbon bioremediation in Pacific Islands coastal soils. Total bacteria and hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms population dynamics were examined in the rhizospheres of tropical trees and shrubs, which were evaluated for their phytoremediation potential in a greenhouse experiment. The respective and combined effects of plant roots and diesel contaminant on the microbial populations were determined in relation to diesel fuel depletion. An increase in the size of the hydrocarbon-degrading populations of microbes, elicited by rhizodeposition, is generally regarded as conducive to an enhanced degradation of petroleum hydrocarbon pollutants in vegetated soil.


The soil was a coastal sandy loam (pH 7.8) which was artificially contaminated with 10 g of No. 2 diesel fuel/kg soil or left uncontaminated. The pots were irrigated with fertilizer and 1% NaCl. The enumerations were carried out in the contaminated and uncontaminated rhizospheres of three trees, kiawe(Prosopis pallida), milo(Thespesia populnea), and kou(Cordia subcordata) and three shrubs, beach naupaka(Scaevola sericea), false sandalwood (Myoporum sandwicense), and oleander(Nerium oleander). Unplanted control soils were included in the experiment. Total bacteria and phenanthrene-degrading bacteria were enumerated on plates. Diesel- and pristane-de-grading microorganisms were enumerated by the most-probable-number technique in tissue-culture plates.

Results and Discussion

All four types of microorganisms responded to the rhizosphere of the 6 plants in uncontaminated soil and to the diesel contaminant in unplanted soil. In contaminated rhizospheres, no effect of the plant on the hydrocarbon-degrader numbers was visible. Total bacteria responded more to the plant roots than to the contaminant. The phenanthrene-degrading bacteria and pristane-degrading microorganisms were more influenced by the contaminant than by the plants. The diesel-degrading microorganisms were equally stimulated by the plants and the contaminant. The numbers of hydrocarbon degraders were similar in the contaminated rhizospheres of the three effective plants (kiawe, kou, and milo) and in those of the three ineffective shrubs.


The results suggest the quality of the rhizodeposition is plant-dependent and governs the type of diesel-degrader populations that will be enhanced by a given plant.

Recommendations and Outlook

In the proposed phytoremedia-tion-benefit model plant roots maintain high levels of hydrocarbon degraders in uncontaminated soil. When the root enters a contaminated zone of soil, those hydrocarbon degraders that prefer the contaminant would switch to the contaminant as a carbon source, effectively removing the hydrocarbons. If the root exudates and the contaminant are equally attractive to the hydrocarbon degraders, the contaminant degradation would be less effective.

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Correspondence to Ryan K. Jones or Wenhao H. Sun or Chung-Shih Tang or Françoise M. Robert.

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Jones, R.K., Sun, W.H., Tang, C. et al. Phytoremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons in tropical coastal soils II. microbial response to plant roots and contaminant. Environ Sci & Pollut Res 11, 340–346 (2004).

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  • Contamination
  • coast
  • degradation
  • diesel
  • Hawaii
  • hydrocarbon degraders
  • petroleum hydrocarbons
  • phytoremediation
  • rhizosphere
  • tropical plants