Contrasting patterns of 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) vs. geosmin across depth in a drinking water reservoir are mediated by cyanobacteria and actinobacteria


Taste and odor episodes caused by off-flavor secondary metabolites, such as 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) and geosmin, pose one of the greatest challenges for drinking water utilities around the world. The prevalence of these compounds is predicted to increase in the future as a function of nutrient enrichment and elevated temperatures of surface drinking water sources. We conducted a manipulative field experiment in a drinking water reservoir to elucidate patterns for two taste and odor compounds, MIB and geosmin, as well as two taxa known to produce these compounds, phytoplankton (more specifically, cyanobacteria) and actinobacteria, across different depths in response to nutrient enrichment with two common dissolved nitrogen forms, organic urea or inorganic nitrate. In general, we found that MIB levels increased by greater than 250% with nutrient enrichment mediated by increased phytoplankton biomass. However, the effect of the fertilization treatments on MIB decreased with depth with a 35% reduction at 7 m versus 1.5 m. In contrast, geosmin levels reached a maximum at the lowest measured depth (7 m), were unaffected by the fertilization treatments, and followed a similar pattern to the abundance of actinobacteria. Thus, our data suggest that the positive response of phytoplankton (e.g., cyanobacteria, such as Oscillatoria species) to the fertilization treatments is likely responsible for increased MIB, while geosmin concentrations may be a function of actinobacteria-mediated decomposition in the hypolimnion in our study system.

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Data availability

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We thank William Thornton and Dan Hilyer for providing equipment and logistical support. We would also like to thank Rebecca Tucker for assistance with sampling and laboratory analyses. We thank Sushil Adhikari, Zhouhong Wang, Ken Mendenhall, and Amy Gamble-Coker for helping with GC/MS method development and Yifen Wang for use of lab space. Finally, we thank Matt Gladfelter, Angelea Belfiore, Riley Buley, and anonymous reviewers for feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript.


This study was supported by an EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship, USGS grant 2011AL121G, the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Hatch program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Conceptualization: MFC, BKO, and AEW. Methodology: MFC, BKO, and AEW. Analyses: MFC, BKO, JC, AA, and AEW. Writing—original draft preparation: MFC, BKO, and AEW. Writing—review and editing: MFC, BKO, JC, AA, TLB, and AEW. Funding acquisition: MFC and AEW.

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Correspondence to Alan E. Wilson.

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Chislock, M.F., Olsen, B.K., Choi, J. et al. Contrasting patterns of 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) vs. geosmin across depth in a drinking water reservoir are mediated by cyanobacteria and actinobacteria. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2021).

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  • Actinomycetes
  • Blue-green algae
  • Eutrophication
  • Harmful algal blooms (HABs)
  • Nutrient enrichment
  • Pollution
  • Streptomyces
  • Taste and odor episodes