Biodegradation of Organic Pollutants


Biodegradation refers to the microbial decomposition of compounds, typically of those that negatively impact human health, in the environment. The genes, enzymes and pathways have been elucidated to understand environmental processes, engineer remediation of polluted environments and to predict the fate of chemicals in the environment.

Keywords: biodegradation; bioremediation; bacteria; pollutants; evolution

Figure 1.

Differences in aerobic versus anaerobic metabolism of alkyl hydrocarbons: (a) aerobic oxygenation of a methyl group to an alcohol, and (b) anaerobic functionalization of a methyl group to make a succinyl appendage.

Figure 2.

Distinctions in the metabolism of the BTEX compounds aerobically versus anaerobically.

Figure 3.

Metabolism of atrazine can occur via microbial consortia. The intermediates on the right represent the end products of metabolism of identified bacteria. Other bacteria can use these intermediates to collectively mineralize atrazine.

Figure 4.

Plasmids involved in horizontal transfer of genes. Larger plasmids can be seen to contain a smaller plasmid‐type within them; thus, the larger plasmids may derive from an ancestor resembling pR751.

Figure 5.

The compound metabolism gap; our knowledge of microbial metabolism grows more slowly than our discovery and synthesis of new chemical compounds.



Ashina Y and Suto M (1993) Development of an enzymatic process for manufacturing acrylamide and recent progress. Bioprocess Technology 16: 91–107.

De Souza ML, Newcombe D, Alvey S et al. (1998) Molecular basis of a bacterial consortium: interspecies catabolism of atrazine. Applied Environmental Microbiology 64: 178–184.

Gibson DT (1988) Microbial metabolism of aromatic hydrocarbons and the carbon cycle. In: Hagedorn SR, Hanson RS and Kunz DA (eds) Microbial Metabolism and the Carbon Cycle, pp. 33–58. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Gibson DT and Subramanian V (1984) Microbial degradation of aromatic hydrocarbons. In Gibson DT (ed.) Microbial Degradation of Organic Compounds, pp. 181–251. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Hou BK, Ellis LBM and Wackett LP (2004) Encoding microbial metabolic logic: predicting biodegradation. Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology 31: 261–272.

Mobitz H and Boll M (2002) A Birch‐like mechanism in enzymatic benzoyl‐CoA reduction: a kinetic study of substrate analogues combined with an ab initio model. Biochemistry 41: 1752–1758.

Seffernick JL and Wackett LP (2001) Rapid evolution of bacterial catabolic enzymes: a case study with atrazine chlorohydrolase. Biochemistry 40: 12747–12753.

Sota M, Kawasaki H and Tsuda M (2003) Structure of haloacetate‐catabolic IncP‐1betaplasmid pUO1 and genetic mobility of its residing haloacetate‐catabolic transposon. Journal of Bacteriology 185: 6741–6745.

Tan NC, Borger A, Slenders P et al. (2000) Degradation of azo dye Mordant Yellow 10 in a sequential anaerobic and bioaugmented aerobic bioremediation. Water Science Technology 42: 337–344.

Top EM, Moënne‐Loccoz Y, Pembroke T and Thomas CM (2000) Phenotypic traits conferred by plasmids. In: Thomas CM (ed.) The Horizontal Gene Pool: Bacterial Plasmids and Gene Spread, pp. 249–285. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Wackett LP, Sadowsky MJ, Martinez B and Shapir N (2002) Biodegradation of atrazine and related triazine compounds: from enzymes to field studies. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 58: 39–45.

Further Reading

Alexander M (1994) Biodegradation and Bioremediation. San Diego: Academic Press.

Wackett LP and Hershberger CD (2001) Biocatalysis and Biodegradation: Microbial Transformation of Organic Compounds. Washington, DC: American Society for Microbiology Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Wackett, Lawrence P, and Ellis, Lynda BM(Jan 2006) Biodegradation of Organic Pollutants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0000469]