The effect of phenylacetic acid (PAA) pulses on anaerobic digestion (AD) performance and archaeal community structure was evaluated in anaerobic digesters treating sewage sludge from a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Four pilot-scale continuous stirred tank reactors were set up at a full-scale municipal WWTP in Santiago de Chile, and fed with either primary or mixed sewage sludge. AD performance was evaluated by volatile fatty acid (VFA) and biogas production monitoring. Archaeal community structure was characterized by 16S rRNA denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and band sequencing. In the primary sludge digester, a single PAA pulse at 200 mg L−1 was sufficient to affect AD performance and archaeal community structure, resulting in long-term VFA accumulation, reduced biogas production and community shift from dominant acetoclastic (Methanosaeta concilii) to hydrogenotrophic (Methanospirillum hungatei) methanogens. By contrast, AD performance and archaeal community structure in the mixed sludge digester were stable and resistant to repeated PAA pulses at 200 and 600 mg L−1. This work demonstrated that the effect of PAA pulses on methanogenic activity and archaeal community structure differed according to AD substrate, and suggests that better insights of the correlations between archaeal population dynamics and functional performance could help to better face toxic shocks in AD.

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