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13C/12C stable carbon isotope fractionation was used to assess biodegradation in contaminated aquifers with toluene as a model compound. Different strains of anaerobic bacteria (Thauera aromatica, Geobacter metallireducens, and the sulfate-reducing strain TRM1) showed consistent 13C/12C carbon isotope fractionation with fractionation factors between αC = 1.0017 and 1.0018. In contrast, three cultures of aerobic organisms, using different mono- and dioxygenase enzyme systems to initiate toluene degradation, showed variable isotope fractionation factors of αC = 1.0027 (Pseudomonas putida strain mt-2), αC = 1.0011 (Ralstonia picketii), and αC = 1.0004 (Pseudomonas putida strain F1). The great variability of isotope fractionation between different aerobic bacterial strains suggests that interpretation of isotope data in oxic habitats can only be qualitative. A soil column was run as a model system for contaminated aquifers with toluene as the carbon source and sulfate as the electron acceptor and samples were taken at different ports along the column. Microbial toluene degradation was calculated based on the 13C/12C isotope fractionation factors of the batch culture experiments together with the observed 13C/12C isotope shifts of the residual toluene fractions. The calculated percentage of biodegradation, B, correlated well with the decreasing toluene concentrations at the sampling ports and indicated the increasing extent of biodegradation along the column. The theoretical toluene concentrations as calculated based on the isotope values matched the measured concentrations at the different sampling ports indicating that the Rayleigh equation can be used to calculate biodegradation in quasi closed systems based on measured isotope shifts. A similar attempt was performed to assess toluene degradation in a contaminated, anoxic aquifer. A transect of groundwater wells was monitored along the main direction of the groundwater flow and revealed decreasing concentrations accompanied with an increase in the 13C/12C stable carbon isotope ratio of the residual toluene. Calculation of the extent of biodegradation based on the isotope values and laboratory derived isotope fractionation factors showed that the residual toluene was degraded to more than 99% by microbial activity. Calculation of the theoretical residual toluene concentrations based on the measured isotope values described the strongly decreasing concentrations along the plume. Other aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene and naphthalene which were analysed in the same course also showed decreasing concentrations along the groundwater flow path accompanied by increasing δ13C values indicating biodegradation.

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