Building microbial communities and managing fermentation in microbial electrolysis cells

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Microbial electrochemical cells (MXCs) offer an alternative to methane production in anaerobic water treatment and the recapture of energy in waste waters. MXCs use anode respiring bacteria (ARB) to

Microbial electrochemical cells (MXCs) offer an alternative to methane production in anaerobic water treatment and the recapture of energy in waste waters. MXCs use anode respiring bacteria (ARB) to oxidize organic compounds and generate electrical current. In both anaerobic digestion and MXCs, an anaerobic food web connects the metabolisms of different microorganisms, using hydrolysis, fermentation and either methanogenesis or anode respiration to break down organic compounds, convert them to acetate and hydrogen, and then convert those intermediates into either methane or current. In this dissertation, understanding and managing the interactions among fermenters, methanogens, and ARB were critical to making developments in MXCs. Deep sequencing technologies were used in order to identify key community members, understand their role in the community, and identify selective pressures that drove the structure of microbial communities. This work goes from developing ARB communities by finding and using the best partners to managing ARB communities with undesirable partners. First, the foundation of MXCs, namely the ARB they rely on, was expanded by identifying novel ARB, the genus Geoalkalibacter, and demonstrating the presence of ARB in 7 out of 13 different environmental samples. Second, a new microbial community which converted butyrate to electricity at ~70% Coulombic efficiency was assembled and demonstrated that mixed communities can be used to assemble efficient ARB communities. Third, varying the concentrations of sugars and ethanol fed to methanogenic communities showed how increasing ED concentration drove decreases in methane production and increases in both fatty acids and the propionate producing genera Bacteroides and Clostridium. Finally, methanogenic batch cultures, fed glucose and sucrose, and exposed to 0.15 – 6 g N-NH4+ L-1 showed that increased NH4+ inhibited methane production, drove fatty acid and lactate production, and enriched Lactobacillales (up to 40% abundance) above 4 g N-NH4+ L-1. Further, 4 g N-NH4+ L-1 improved Coulombic efficiencies in MXCs fed with glucose and sucrose, and showed that MXC communities, especially the biofilm, are more resilient to high NH4+ than comparable methanogenic communities. These developments offer new opportunities for MXC applications, guidance for efficient operation of MXCs, and insights into fermentative microbial communities.