Biodegradation of two chlorinated aromatic compounds was found to be a common capability of the microorganisms found in the soils of undisturbed, pristine ecosystems. We used 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetate (2,4-D) and 3-chlorobenzoate (3CBA) as enrichment substrates to compare populations of degrading bacteria from six different regions making up two ecosystems. We collected soil samples from four Mediterranean (California, central Chile, the Cape region of South Africa, and southwestern Australia) and two boreal (northern Saskatchewan and northwestern Russia) ecosystems that had no direct exposure to pesticides or to human disturbance. Between 96 and 120 samples from each of the six regions were incubated with 50 ppm of [U-14C]2,4-D or [U-14C]3CBA. Soils from all regions samples mineralized both 2,4-D and 3CBA, but 3CBA was mineralized without a lag period, while 2,4-D was generally not mineralized until the second week. 3CBA degradative capabilities were more evenly distributed spatially than those for 2,4-D. The degradative capabilities of the soils were readily transferred to fresh liquid medium. 3CBA degraders were easily isolated from most soils. We recovered 610 strains that could release carbon dioxide from ring-labeled 3CBA. Of these, 144 strains released chloride and degraded over 80% of 1 mM 3CBA in 3 weeks or less. In contrast, only five 2,4-D degraders could be isolated, although a variety of methods were used in an attempt to culture the degraders. The differences in the distribution and culturability of the bacteria responsible for 3CBA and 2,4-D degradation in these ecosystems suggest that the two substrates are degraded by different populations. We also describe a 14C-based microtiter plate method that allows efficient screening of a large number of samples for biodegradation activity
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