Microbial Population Dynamics in Model Sewage Treatment Plants and the Fate and Effect of Gold Nanoparticles
Adequate functioning of a sewage treatment plant (STP) is essential to protect the downstream aquatic environment (ECHA 2017), and information on the degradability of chemicals and their toxicity to activated sludge microorganisms is required. An environmental realistic higher tier test is a STP simulation test as described in OECD 303A (2001) which for nanoparticles can also be used to study their sorption behavior to activated sludge. However, information is limited on the influence of synthetic sewage on the microbial community of the activated sludge. A modified community can result in modifications of the sludge floccules affecting the sorption behavior. The main objective of our study was to show whether a representative microbial diversity remains under standardized test conditions as described in OECD 303A (2001) using synthetic sewage as influent. Furthermore, we investigated whether just considering the functional properties of a STP (elimination of dissolved organic carbon; nitrification), is sufficient for an assessment of gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) or whether the influence on microbial diversity also needs to be considered. AuNPs were used as a case study due to their rising medical applications and therefore increasing probability to reach the sewer and STP. The results can provide significant input for the interpretation of results from the regulatory point of view. To deliver these objectives, the general changes of the microbial population in activated sludge and its influence on the degradation activity (dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and inorganic nitrogen) using freshly collected sludge from the municipal STP in an artificial test system as a model STP in accordance with OECD 303A (2001) were assessed. Additionally, we evaluated the potential impact of AuNPs and its dispersant on the microbial composition and the overall impact on the function of the STP in terms of DOC degradation and nitrogen removal to observe if an assessment based on functional properties is sufficient. The bacteria composition in our study, evaluated at a class level, revealed commonly described environmental bacteria. Proteobacteria (v, a, d) accounted for more than 50% but also nitrifying bacteria as Nitrospira were present. Our results show that mainly within the first 7 days of an acclimatization phase by addition of synthetic sewage, the bacterial community changed. Even though AuNPs can have antibacterial properties, no adverse effects on the function and structure of the microorganisms in the STP could be detected at concentrations of increased modeled PEC values by a factor of about 10,000. Complementary to other metallic nanomaterials, gold nanomaterials also sorb to a large extent to the activated sludge. If activated sludge is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, gold nanoparticles can be introduced into soils. In this case, the effect on soil (micro)organisms must be investigated more closely, also taking into account the structural diversity.