Substrate interactions in BTEX and MTBE mixtures by an MTBE-degrading isolate. Academic Article uri icon


  • Groundwater contaminant plumes from recent accidental gasoline releases often contain the fuel oxygenate MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether) together with BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, o-xylene, m-xylene and p-xylene) compounds. This study evaluates substrate interactions during the aerobic biotransformation of MTBE and BTEX mixtures by a pure culture, PM1, capable of utilizing MTBE for growth. PM1 was unable to degrade ethylbenzene and two of the xylene isomers at concentrations of 20 mg/L following culture growth on MTBE. In addition, the presence of 20 mg/L of ethylbenzene or the xylenes in mixtures with MTBE completely inhibited MTBE degradation. When MTBE-grown cells of PM1 were exposed to MTBE/benzene and MTBE/toluene mixtures, MTBE degradation proceeded, while the degradation of benzene and toluene was delayed for several hours. Following this initial lag, benzene and toluene were degraded rapidly, while the rate of MTBE degradation slowed significantly. MTBE degradation did not increase to previous rates until benzene and toluene were almost entirely degraded. The lag in benzene and toluene degradation was presumably due to the induction of the enzymes necessary for BTEX degradation. Once these enzymes were induced, sequential additions of benzene or toluene were degraded rapidly, and growth on benzene and toluene was observed. The results of this study suggest that BTEX and MTBE degradation occurs primarily via two independent and inducible pathways. If subsurface microbial communities behave similarly to the culture used in this study, the observed severe inhibition of MTBE degradation by ethylbenzene and the xylenes and the partial inhibition by benzene and toluene suggest thatthe biodegradation of MTBE in subsurface environments would most likely be delayed until MTBE has migrated beyond the BTEX plume.

author list (cited authors)

  • Deeb, R. A., Hu, H. Y., Hanson, J. R., Scow, K. M., & Alvarez-Cohen, L.

citation count

  • 117

publication date

  • January 2001