Stable isotope fractionation analysis as a tool to monitor biodegradation in contaminated acquifers

Rainer U. Meckenstock, Barbara Morasch, Christian Griebler, Hans H. Richnow

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360 Scopus citations


The assessment of biodegradation in contaminated aquifers has become an issue of increasing importance in the recent years. To some extent, this can be related to the acceptance of intrinsic bioremediation or monitored natural attenuation as a means to manage contaminated sites. Among the few existing methods to detect biodegradation in the subsurface, stable isotope fractionation analysis (SIFA) is one of the most promising approaches which is pronounced by the drastically increasing number of applications. This review covers the recent laboratory and field studies assessing biodegradation of contaminants via stable isotope analysis. Stable isotope enrichment factors have been found that vary from no fractionation for dioxygenase reactions converting aromatic hydrocarbons over moderate fractionation by monooxygenase reactions (ε=-3‰) and some anaerobic studies on microbial degradation of aromatic hydrocarbons (ε=-1.7‰) to larger fractionations by anaerobic dehalogenation reactions of chlorinated solvents (ε=between -5‰ and -30‰). The different isotope enrichment factors can be related to the respective biochemical reactions. Based on that knowledge, we discuss under what circumstances SIFA can be used for a qualitative or even a quantitative assessment of biodegradation in the environment. In a steadily increasing number of cases, it was possible to explain biodegradation processes in the field based on isotope enrichment factors obtained from laboratory experiments with pure cultures and measured isotope values from the field. The review will focus on the aerobic and anaerobic degradation of aromatic hydrocarbons and chlorinated solvents as the major contaminants of groundwater. Advances in the instrumental development for stable isotope analysis are only mentioned if it is important for the understanding of the application.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)215-255
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Aromatic hydrocarbons
  • BTEX
  • Biodegradation
  • CSIA
  • Chlorinated hydrocarbons
  • IRMS
  • Natural attenuation
  • PAH
  • Stable isotope fractionation


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