Microbial Ecology of Naphthenic Acid (NA) Degradation

  • Karl Skeels
  • Corinne WhitbyEmail author
Reference work entry
Part of the Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology book series (HHLM)


Bitumen extraction produces large amounts of oil sands process-affected waters (OSPW) which are stored in vast tailings ponds. OSPW is acutely toxic to many organisms, and this toxicity is largely attributed to the presence of naphthenic acids (NAs). NAs are complex mixtures of organic compounds, including acyclic and cyclic, saturated and aromatic carboxylic acids, which traditionally fit the general formula CnH2n+zO2. Di-, tri-, tetra-, and pentacyclic diamondoid acids as well as structures that contain more than two oxygen atoms (Oxy-NAs) and/or nitrogen and sulfur have also been identified. NAs may originate from either anthropogenic (e.g., tailings ponds) or natural (e.g., Athabasca River sediments) sources. Although many studies have focused on the biodegradation of either model or commercial NAs, many of those NAs found in the environment are recalcitrant to biodegradation. Currently, little is known about the ecology of NA-degrading microorganisms and the range of NAs that they metabolize. Typically, mixed microbial communities from environments that have a history of NA contamination, such as those found in oil sands and OSPW, can degrade NAs, including recalcitrant NAs, more quickly than pure cultures. Indeed, microorganisms capable of effective NA degradation include members of the Proteobacteria, particularly Pseudomonas spp. However, NA structure and composition, as well as environmental factors such as the presence of specific electron acceptors, trace metals, and competition for substrates from non-NA-degrading microbes, are important drivers in shaping NA-degrading microbial communities. In order to elucidate the mechanisms of NA degradation for future remediation strategies, it is important to better understand the ecology of NA degradation.

List of Abbreviations


Acid-extractable organics


Activated sludge


Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene


Cyclohexane acetic acid


Cyclohexane butyric acid


Cyclohexane carboxylic acid


Cyclohexane propionic acid


Cyclohexane pentanoic acid


Decanoic acid


Decahydro-2-naphthoic acid


Granular activated carbon




Hexanoic acid


Lethal concentration


Methyl-cyclohexane carboxylic acid


Mature fine tailings


Naphthenic acids


Oil sands process-affected waters (or oil sands process waters)


Oxy-naphthenic acids


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons


Sequencing batch reactor


Sulfate-reducing bacteria



We thank Dr. Lisa Gieg, University of Calgary, for her useful comments on the manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of EssexEssexUK

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