Influences of the substrate feeding regime on methanogenic activity in biogas reactors approached by molecular and stable isotope methods
In order to better understand the effects of the substrate feeding regime on methanogenesis during anaerobic digestion in biogas reactors, four continuous stirred tank reactors operated under mesophilic conditions were investigated. In addition to standard physicochemical parameters, the stable isotopic signatures of CH4 and CO2 before and after daily feeding were analyzed. The activity of the methanogens was assessed by methyl coenzyme M reductase alpha-subunit (mcrA/mrtA) gene transcript analysis. Two different feeding regimes i.e. single vs. double consecutive feeding of the otherwise same daily maize silage load were investigated. During the first phase, a single feeding of the whole daily dose increased the biogas production within 70–80 min from around 0.5 to 2.0 L/h. This increase was associated with a transient increase of the acetic acid concentration and a corresponding decrease of the pH. Only moderate increase in biogas yield and VFA concentration (mainly acetate) was observed when the daily substrate was apportioned into two feedings. However, the overall daily gas production was similar in both cases. Regardless of the feeding regime, significantly depleted δ13CH4 and minor changes in the CO2 content of biogas were observed after feeding, which were followed by enrichment of δ13CH4. This period was associated with detectable changes in activity of methanogenic communities monitored by terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis based on the transcripts of mcrA/mrtA genes. Methanoculleus and Methanobacterium spp. were the predominant methanogens in all reactors, while Methanosarcina spp. activity was only significant in two reactors. The activity of Methanoculleus and Methanosarcina spp. increased after the feeding in these reactors, which was followed by a depletion of δ13C in the produced gas. In both reactors, the less depleted isotopic values were detected before the second feeding, when Methanobacterium was the most active genus. Variations in reactor performance and methanogenic community characteristics were attributed to inoculum heterogeneity and stochastic factors during the reactor set up.