Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Major Professor

Gary S. Sayler

Committee Members

Gary McCraken, Jennifer Schweitzer, Mark Radosevich


Microbial biodegradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) is the primary means of attenuation of these toxic and carcinogenic compounds from contaminated soils and sediments. The documented toxicity and carcinogenicity of many PAHs demands remedial action for PAH-contaminated soils and sediments. This is especially important for historically contaminated sites, where higher molecular weight PAHs (HMW) are recalcitrant. Recently, fast-growing Mycobacteria have been identified that can degrade HMW PAHs, such as pyrene and benzo[a]pyrene. These bacteria have been isolated from a variety of geographical locations, indicating a cosmopolitan distribution.

This dissertation work was driven by the need for a better understanding of the ecology, distribution, and dynamics of indigenous microbial populations that can biodegrade PAHs, with an emphasis on Mycobacteria. Both culture-independent molecular approaches and cultivation were used to 1) determine the presence of pyrene-degrading Mycobacterium genotypes and compare dynamics to proteobacterial naphthalene-degradation genotypes; 2) determine the distribution of these genotypes across environments, including different geographical locations (Chattanooga Creek and Lake Erie) and different physical environments (sediments vs. suspended particles); and 3) provide a link between functional pyrene genotypes and phylogenetic identity of isolated pyrene-degrading organisms.

The results of these studies indicate the pyrene-degrading Mycobacteria have broad, cosmopolitan distribution in contaminated sediments and suspended particles. Isolation of pyrene-degrading organisms from both Chattanooga Creek and Lake Erie has provided strong evidence for horizontal transfer of pyrenedegrading genes between diverse genera. This work demonstrates the prevalence of pyrene-degrading organisms in contaminated sediments and implicates an integral role in natural attenuation of HMW PAHs.

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