Bacterial community structure and variation in a full-scale seawater desalination plant for drinking water production

Abdelaziz Belila, Joline El Chakhtoura, N. Otaibi, G. Muyzer, Graciela Gonzalez-Gil, Pascal Saikaly, Mark C.M. van Loosdrecht, Johannes S. Vrouwenvelder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


Microbial processes inevitably play a role in membrane-based desalination plants, mainly recognized as membrane biofouling. We assessed the bacterial community structure and diversity during different treatment steps in a full-scale seawater desalination plant producing 40,000 m3/d of drinking water. Water samples were taken over the full treatment train consisting of chlorination, spruce media and cartridge filters, de-chlorination, first and second pass reverse osmosis (RO) membranes and final chlorine dosage for drinking water distribution. The water samples were analyzed for water quality parameters (total bacterial cell number, total organic carbon, conductivity, pH, etc.) and microbial community composition by 16S rRNA gene pyrosequencing. The planktonic microbial community was dominated by Proteobacteria (48.6%) followed by Bacteroidetes (15%), Firmicutes (9.3%) and Cyanobacteria (4.9%). During the pretreatment step, the spruce media filter did not impact the bacterial community composition dominated by Proteobacteria. In contrast, the RO and final chlorination treatment steps reduced the Proteobacterial relative abundance in the produced water where Firmicutes constituted the most dominant bacterial group. Shannon and Chao1 diversity indices showed that bacterial species richness and diversity decreased during the seawater desalination process. The two-stage RO filtration strongly reduced the water conductivity (>99%), TOC concentration (98.5%) and total bacterial cell number (>99%), albeit some bacterial DNA was found in the water after RO filtration. About 0.25% of the total bacterial operational taxonomic units (OTUs) were present in all stages of the desalination plant: the seawater, the RO permeates and the chlorinated drinking water, suggesting that these bacterial strains can survive in different environments such as high/low salt concentration and with/without residual disinfectant. These bacterial strains were not caused by contamination during water sample filtration or from DNA extraction protocols. Control measurements for sample contamination are important for clean water studies.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)62-72
Number of pages11
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - Feb 20 2016

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2020-10-01
Acknowledged KAUST grant number(s): URF/1/1728-01-01
Acknowledgements: This publication is based upon work supported by the KAUST Office of Competitive Research Funds (OCRF) under Award No. URF/1/1728-01-01 and Evides Waterbedrijf. Special thanks to all KAUST desalination plant staff for their technical assistance and to Noreddine Ghaffour and Qingyu Li for providing water quality data and discussions.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Pollution
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Waste Management and Disposal


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