Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 288–296 | Cite as

Effects of Cd and Pb on soil microbial community structure and activities

  • Sardar Khan
  • Abd El-Latif Hesham
  • Min Qiao
  • Shafiqur Rehman
  • Ji-Zheng He


Background, aim, and scope

Soil contamination with heavy metals occurs as a result of both anthropogenic and natural activities. Heavy metals could have long-term hazardous impacts on the health of soil ecosystems and adverse influences on soil biological processes. Soil enzymatic activities are recognized as sensors towards any natural and anthropogenic disturbance occurring in the soil ecosystem. Similarly, microbial biomass carbon (MBC) is also considered as one of the important soil biological activities frequently influenced by heavy metal contamination. The polymerase chain reaction–denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) has recently been used to investigate changes in soil microbial community composition in response to environmental stresses. Soil microbial community structure and activities are difficult to elucidate using single monitoring approach; therefore, for a better insight and complete depiction of the soil microbial situation, different approaches need to be used. This study was conducted in a greenhouse for a period of 12 weeks to evaluate the changes in indigenous microbial community structure and activities in the soil amended with different application rates of Cd, Pb, and Cd/Pb mix. In a field environment, soil is contaminated with single or mixed heavy metals; so that, in this research, we used the selected metals in both single and mixed forms at different application rates and investigated their toxic effects on microbial community structure and activities, using soil enzyme assays, plate counting, and advanced molecular DGGE technique. Soil microbial activities, including acid phosphatase (ACP), urease (URE), and MBC, and microbial community structure were studied.

Materials and methods

A soil sample (0–20 cm) with an unknown history of heavy metal contamination was collected and amended with Cd, Pb, and Cd/Pb mix using the CdSO4 and Pb(NO3)2 solutions at different application rates. The amended soils were incubated in the greenhouse at 25 ± 4°C and 60% water-holding capacity for 12 weeks. During the incubation period, samples were collected from each pot at 0, 2, 9, and 12 weeks for enzyme assays, MBC, numeration of microbes, and DNA extraction. Fumigation–extraction method was used to measure the MBC, while plate counting techniques were used to numerate viable heterotrophic bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes. Soil DNAs were extracted from the samples and used for DGGE analysis.


ACP, URE, and MBC activities of microbial community were significantly lower (p < 0.05) in the metal-amended samples than those in the control. The enzyme inhibition extent was obvious between different incubation periods and varied as the incubation proceeded, and the highest rate was detected in the samples after 2 weeks. However, the lowest values of ACP and URE activities (35.6% and 36.6% of the control, respectively) were found in the Cd3/Pb3-treated sample after 2 weeks. Similarly, MBC was strongly decreased in both Cd/Pb-amended samples and highest reduction (52.4%) was detected for Cd3/Pb3 treatment. The number of bacteria and actinomycetes were significantly decreased in the heavy metal-amended samples compared to the control, while fungal cells were not significantly different (from 2.3% to 23.87%). In this study, the DGGE profile indicated that the high dose of metal amendment caused a greater change in the number of bands. DGGE banding patterns confirmed that the addition of metals had a significant impact on microbial community structure.


In soil ecosystem, heavy metals exhibit toxicological effects on soil microbes which may lead to the decrease of their numbers and activities. This study demonstrated that toxicological effects of heavy metals on soil microbial community structure and activities depend largely on the type and concentration of metal and incubation time. The inhibition extent varied widely among different incubation periods for these enzymes. Furthermore, the rapid inhibition in microbial activities such as ACP, URE, and MBC were observed in the 2 weeks, which should be related to the fact that the microbes were suddenly exposed to heavy metals. The increased inhibition of soil microbial activities is likely to be related to tolerance and adaptation of the microbial community, concentration of pollutants, and mechanisms of heavy metals. The DGGE profile has shown that the structure of the bacterial community changed in amended heavy metal samples. In this research, the microbial community structure was highly affected, consistent with the lower microbial activities in different levels of heavy metals. Furthermore, a great community change in this study, particularly at a high level of contamination, was probably a result of metal toxicity and also unavailability of nutrients because no nutrients were supplied during the whole incubation period.


The added concentrations of heavy metals have changed the soil microbial community structure and activities. The highest inhibitory effects on soil microbial activities were observed at 2 weeks of incubation. The bacteria were more sensitive than actinomycetes and fungi. The DGGE profile indicated that bacterial community structure was changed in the Cd/Pb-amended samples, particularly at high concentrations.

Recommendations and perspectives

The investigation of soil microbial community structure and activities together could give more reliable and accurate information about the toxic effects of heavy metals on soil health.


DGGE Enzymatic activity Heavy metals Microbial biomass carbon Microbial community 



This work was financially supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (kzcx1-yw-06-03) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (2007CB407301 and 2007CB407304). Mr. Sardar Khan would like to thank the Higher Education Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan for supporting his Ph.D. study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sardar Khan
    • 1
    • 2
  • Abd El-Latif Hesham
    • 3
  • Min Qiao
    • 2
  • Shafiqur Rehman
    • 1
  • Ji-Zheng He
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Environmental SciencesUniversity of PeshawarPeshawarPakistan
  2. 2.Chinese Academy of Sciences, State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional EcologyResearch Center for Eco-Environmental SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Genetics Department, Faculty of AgricultureAssiut UniversityAsyutEgypt

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