Biotransformation potential of phytosterols in biological treatment systems under various redox conditions
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Phytosterols are naturally occurring compounds which regulate membrane fluidity and serve as hormone precursors in plants. They also have the potential to cause endocrine disturbances in aquatic animals at concentrations as low as 10 µg/L. Wastewaters from several industries which process plant matter can contain phytosterols at concentrations in excess of the above-stated level. Despite their endocrine disruption potential, very little is known about phytosterol physical properties and their biotransformation potential in biological treatment systems. Aerated stabilization basins (ASBs) are common biological treatment systems in North American pulp and paper mills. ASBs are large open lagoons which use tapered surface aeration to remove COD and prevent sulfate reduction in the water column. Phytosterols are released from wood during the pulping process and a small fraction enters the wastewater stream during washing of the pulp. Therefore, phytosterols may be exposed to aerobic or anaerobic environments depending on their solubility and solid-liquid partitioning behavior. The overall objective of this research was to systematically and quantitatively assess the biotransformation potential of phytosterols in biological treatment systems and to examine conditions leading to reduction of these compounds in wastewater effluent streams. The results of this research showed that phytosterols are sparingly soluble with aqueous solubility below 1 µg/L when present as a mixture. Phytosterols have a strong affinity to adsorb to solids and dissolved organic matter. The affinity for aerobic biomass was greater than for wastewater solids. The stigmasterol desorption rate and extent from wastewater solids increased with an increase in pH from 5 or 7 to 9. Phytosterols were biotransformed under aerobic conditions but not under sulfate-reducing or methanogenic conditions by stock cultures developed in this study. Biotransformation under nitrate-reducing conditions could not be confirmed conclusively. The continuous-flow system was successful in removing 72 to 96% of phytosterols. Biotransformation accounted for 23, 14 and 41 % of campesterol, stigmasterol and β-sitosterol removal, respectively. Phytosterols accumulated in the reactor sediment and accounted for 97 % of the total phytosterols remaining in the system. Phytosterols can be removed from wastewater streams during biological treatment by a combination of biotransformation and solids partitioning and control of system pH, DO and available carbon and energy sources can increase the degree of phytosterols removal. The results of this research can be used to engineer effective biological treatment systems for the removal of phytosterols from pulp mill wastewaters and other phytosterol-bearing wastewater streams.