Massive usage, along with careless handling, storage, spills, and leakages made chloroethenes (CEs) one of the most abundant classes of groundwater contaminants. Anaerobic organohalide respiring bacteria (OHRB) can couple reductive dechlorination of CEs with energy conservation, a central microbial process in (enhanced) natural attenuation of CE-contaminated aquifers. Spatial variability of OHRB guild members present in contaminated sites has not yet been investigated in detail and it is not known whether the spatial localization of contaminated sites could impact differentially remediation capacities. The goal of this study was to investigate how spatially distant microbial communities responded to the presence of CEs. Bacterial communities associated with five geographically distant European CE-contaminated aquifers were analyzed with terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism. Numerical ecology tools were used to assess the separate and combined effects on the communities of their spatial localization, their local environmental conditions and their contaminant concentrations. Three spatial scales were used for the assessment of the structuration of the communities as a function of geographical distances, namely at the aquifer scale, at medium (50 km) and long (ca. 1000 km) distances between aquifers. As a result, bacterial communities were structured with an almost identical contribution by both the geographical position of the aquifer and local environmental variables, especially electron donors and acceptors. The impact of environmental factors decreased with distance between aquifers, with the concomitant increase in importance of a geographical factor. Contrastingly, CEs contributed at a low extent at the medium scale and became important only when all aquifers were considered together, at a large geographical scale, suggesting that distant communities were structured partially by a common niche specialization in organohalide respiration.
Keywords: Dehalococcoides; T-RFLP; aquifers; bacterial communities; biogeography; chloroethenes; numerical ecology; organohalide respiration.