Aerobic MTBE biodegradation: an examination of past studies, current challenges and future research directions. Academic Article uri icon


  • With the current practice of amending gasoline with up to 15% by volume MTBE, the contamination of groundwater by MTBE has become widespread. As a result, the bioremediation of MTBE-impacted aquifers has become an active area of research. A review of the current literature on the aerobic biodegradation of MTBE reveals that a number of cultures from diverse environments can either partially degrade or completely mineralize MTBE. MTBE is either utilized as a sole carbon and energy source or is degraded cometabolically by cultures grown on alkanes. Reported degradation rates range from 0.3 to 50 mg MTBE/g cells/h while growth rates (0.01-0.05 g MTBE/g cells/d) and cellular yields (0.1-0.2 g cells/g MTBE) are generally low. Studies on the mechanisms of MTBE degradation indicate that a monooxygenase enzyme cleaves the ether bond yielding tert-butyl alcohol (TBA) and formaldehyde as the dominant detectable intermediates. TBA is further degraded to 2-methyl-2-hydroxy-1-propanol, 2-hydroxyisobutyric acid, 2-propanol, acetone, hydroxyacteone and eventually, carbon dioxide. The majority of these intermediates are also common to mammalian MTBE metabolism. Laboratory studies on the degradation of MTBE in the presence of gasoline aromatics reveal that while degradation rates of other gasoline components are generally not inhibited by MTBE, MTBE degradation could be inhibited in the presence of more easily biodegradable compounds. Controlled field studies are clearly needed to elucidate MTBE degradation potential in co-contaminant plumes. Based on the reviewed studies, it is likely that a bioremediation strategy involving direct metabolism, cometabolism, bioaugmentation, or some combination thereof, could be applied as a feasible and cost-effective treatment method for MTBE contamination.

published proceedings

  • Biodegradation

author list (cited authors)

  • Deeb, R. A., Scow, K. M., & Alvarez-Cohen, L.

citation count

  • 118

complete list of authors

  • Deeb, RA||Scow, KM||Alvarez-Cohen, L

publication date

  • January 2000