Biodegradation of short-chain n-alkanes in oil sands tailings under methanogenic conditions

Environ Sci Technol. 2006 Sep 1;40(17):5459-64. doi: 10.1021/es060993m.


The biodegradation of a mixture of low molecular weight n-alkanes (C6, C7, C8, and C10) was assessed under methanogenic conditions using mature fine tailings (MFT) produced by the oil sands industry in Alberta, Canada. Microorganisms present in the MFT mineralized the added n-alkane mixture, producing 16.2 (+/- 0.3) or 20.5 (+/- 0.1) mmol of methane in the headspace of microcosms spiked with 0.2% or 0.5% w/v n-alkanes, respectively, during 29 weeks of incubation. The spiked n-alkanes biodegraded in the sequence C10 > C8 > C7 > C6. Degradation of 100% C10, 97% C8, 74% C7, and 44% C6 occurred in a mixture of n-alkanes in the MFT spiked at 0.2% after 25 weeks of incubation. The same pattern of biodegradation was also observed in the MFT spiked with 0.5% n-alkanes. Stoichiometric calculations confirmed the mineralization of the degraded n-alkanes to methane. This study showed that the short-chain n-alkanes, which comprise a significant portion of the unrecovered naphtha used in bitumen extraction and released into the settling basins, can be biodegraded into methane. These findings may influence decisions regarding extraction processes and long-term management of MFT, and they suggest that intrinsic, methanogenic metabolism of these n-alkanes may occur in other anoxic environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alkanes / metabolism*
  • Methane / biosynthesis*
  • Molecular Weight
  • Silicon Dioxide*
  • Soil Microbiology
  • Soil Pollutants / metabolism*


  • Alkanes
  • Soil Pollutants
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Methane