Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 521–530

AhR agonist and genotoxicant bioavailability in a PAH-contaminated soil undergoing biological treatment

  • Erika Andersson
  • Anna Rotander
  • Thomas von Kronhelm
  • Anna Berggren
  • Per Ivarsson
  • Henner Hollert
  • Magnus Engwall


Background, aim, and scope

Degradation of the 16 US EPA priority PAHs in soil subjected to bioremediation is often achieved. However, the PAH loss is not always followed by a reduction in soil toxicity. For instance, bioanalytical testing of such soil using the chemical-activated luciferase gene expression (CALUX) assay, measuring the combined effect of all Ah receptor (AhR) activating compounds, occasionally indicates that the loss of PAHs does not correlate with the loss of Ah receptor-active compounds in the soil. In addition, standard PAH analysis does not address the issue of total toxicant bioavailability in bioremediated soil.

Materials and methods

To address these questions, we have used the CALUX AhR agonist bioassay and the Comet genotoxicity bioassay with RTL-W1 cells to evaluate the toxic potential of different extracts from a PAH-contaminated soil undergoing large-scale bioremediation. The extracts were also chemically analyzed for PAH16 and PCDD/PCDF. Soil sampled on five occasions between day 0 and day 274 of biological treatment was shaken with n-butanol with vortex mixing at room temperature to determine the bioavailable fraction of contaminants. To establish total concentrations, parts of the same samples were extracted using an accelerated solvent extractor (ASE) with toluene at 100°C. The extracts were tested as inducers of AhR-dependent luciferase activity in the CALUX assay and for DNA breakage potential in the Comet bioassay.


The chemical analysis of the toluene extracts indicated slow degradation rates and the CALUX assay indicated high levels of AhR agonists in the same extracts. Compared to day 0, the bioavailable fractions showed no decrease in AhR agonist activity during the treatment but rather an up-going trend, which was supported by increasing levels of PAHs and an increased effect in the Comet bioassay after 274 days. The bio-TEQs calculated using the CALUX assay were higher than the TEQs calculated from chemical analysis in both extracts, indicating that there are additional toxic PAHs in both extracts that are not included in the chemically derived TEQ.


The response in the CALUX and the Comet bioassays as well as the chemical analysis indicate that the soil might be more toxic to organisms living in soil after 274 days of treatment than in the untreated soil, due to the release of previously sorbed PAHs and possibly also metabolic formation of novel toxicants.


Our results put focus on the issue of slow degradation rates and bioavailability of PAHs during large-scale bioremediation treatments. The release of sorbed PAHs at the investigated PAH-contaminated site seemed to be faster than the degradation rate, which demonstrates the importance of considering the bioavailable fraction of contaminants during a bioremediation process.

Recommendations and perspectives

It has to be ensured that soft remediation methods like biodegradation or the natural remediation approach do not result in the mobilization of toxic compounds including more mobile degradation products. For PAH-contaminated sites this cannot be assured merely by monitoring the 16 target PAHs. The combined use of a battery of biotests for different types of PAH effects such as the CALUX and the Comet assay together with bioavailability extraction methods may be a useful screening tool of bioremediation processes of PAH-contaminated soil and contribute to a more accurate risk assessment. If the bioremediation causes a release of bound PAHs that are left undegraded in an easily extracted fraction, the soil may be more toxic to organisms living in the soil as a result of the treatment. A prolonged treatment time may be one way to reduce the risk of remaining mobile PAHs. In critical cases, the remediation concept might have to be changed to ex situ remediation methods.


AhR agonist Bioassay Bioavailability Bioremediation Natural attenuation PAH Toxicity Unintentionally produced POPs 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erika Andersson
    • 1
  • Anna Rotander
    • 1
  • Thomas von Kronhelm
    • 2
  • Anna Berggren
    • 3
  • Per Ivarsson
    • 3
  • Henner Hollert
    • 4
  • Magnus Engwall
    • 1
  1. 1.Man–Technology–Environment Research Centre, School of Science and TechnologyÖrebro UniversityÖrebroSweden
  2. 2.SAKAB ABKumlaSweden
  3. 3.Eurofins AnalyCenLidköpingSweden
  4. 4.Department of Ecosystem Analysis, Institute for Environmental Research (Biology V)RWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany

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