Exploring biodiversity and arsenic metabolism of microbiota inhabiting arsenic-rich groundwaters in Northern Italy

Lucia Cavalca*, Sarah Zecchin, Patrizia Zaccheo, Ben Abbas, Marco Rotiroti, Tullia Bonomi, Gerard Muyzer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
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Arsenic contamination of groundwater aquifers is an issue of global concern. Among the affected sites, in several Italian groundwater aquifers arsenic levels above the WHO limits for drinking water are present, with consequent issues of public concern. In this study, for the first time, the role of microbial communities in metalloid cycling in groundwater samples from Northern Italy lying on Pleistocene sediments deriving from Alps mountains has been investigated combining environmental genomics and cultivation approaches. 16S rRNA gene libraries revealed a high number of yet uncultured species, which in some of the study sites accounted for more of the 50% of the total community. Sequences related to arsenic-resistant bacteria (arsenate-reducing and arsenite-oxidizing) were abundant in most of the sites, while arsenate-respiring bacteria were negligible. In some of the sites, sulfur-oxidizing bacteria of the genus Sulfuricurvum accounted for more than 50% of the microbial community, whereas iron-cycling bacteria were less represented. In some aquifers, arsenotrophy, growth coupled to autotrophic arsenite oxidation, was suggested by detection of arsenite monooxygenase (aioA) and 1,5-ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (RuBisCO) cbbL genes of microorganisms belonging to Rhizobiales and Burkholderiales. Enrichment cultures established from sampled groundwaters in laboratory conditions with 1.5 mmol L-1 of arsenite as sole electron donor were able to oxidize up to 100% of arsenite, suggesting that this metabolism is active in groundwaters. The presence of heterotrophic arsenic resistant bacteria was confirmed by enrichment cultures in most of the sites. The overall results provided a first overview of the microorganisms inhabiting arsenic-contaminated aquifers in Northern Italy and suggested the importance of sulfur-cycling bacteria in the biogeochemistry of arsenic in these ecosystems. The presence of active arsenite-oxidizing bacteria indicates that biological oxidation of arsenite, in combination with arsenate-adsorbing materials, could be employed for metalloid removal.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1480
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberJUL
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Arsenate-reducing bacteria
  • Arsenic
  • Arsenite-oxidizing bacteria
  • Groundwater
  • Iron bacteria
  • Sulfur bacteria


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