Sludge reduction is one of the major challenges in biological wastewater treatment. One approach is to increase the sludge degradation yield together with the biodegradation kinetics. Among the various sludge pretreatment strategies proposed, thermal pretreatment at around 65 °C was described as promising. The enhancement in the biodegradation activity due to the selection of thermophilic hydrolytic bacteria was proposed, but further experiments are needed to demonstrate the specific role of these bacteria. In this study, concentrated activated sludge grown at 20 °C was subjected to thermal treatment at 65 °C for different periods. The originality of the work relied on a polyphasic approach based on the correlation between kinetics (chemical oxygen demand, COD; mixed liquor suspended solids, MLSS), bacterial activity (respirometry) and bacterial community structure (phylochip monitoring) in order to characterize the mechanisms involved in the thermal reduction of sludge. The bacterial activity in the aeration basin decreased to a very low level when recycling sludge was treated at 65 °C from 13 to 60 h, but then, started to increase after 60 h. In parallel to these fluctuations in activity, a drastic shift occurred in the bacterial community structure with the selection of thermophilic bacteria (mainly related to genera Paenibacillus and Bacillus), which are known for their specific hydrolases.
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