Laboratory simulations and field studies of the shallow subsurface have shown that microbes and their extracellular products can influence the mobility of toxic metals from waste disposal sites. Modelling the transport of contaminants in groundwater may, therefore, require the input of microbial ecology data in addition to geochemical data, thus increasing the costs and the uncertainty of predictions. However, whether microbial effects on contaminant mobility occur extensively in the natural subsurface is unknown because the conditions under which they have been observed hitherto are generally unrepresentative of the average subsurface environment. Here, we show that microbial activity affects the mobility of a toxic trace metal (Cu) under the relatively low nutrient fluxes that dominate subsurface systems. More particularly, we show that under these low nutrient conditions, microbes and microbial products can immobilize metal but may themselves be subject to subsequent mobilization, thus complicating the pattern of metal storage and release. Our results show that the capability of microbes in the subsurface to change both the capacity of porous media to store metal, and the behaviour of metal that is released, is not restricted to the well researched environments close to sites of waste disposal. We anticipate our simulations will be a starting point for generating input data for transport models, and specifying the mechanism of metal remobilisation in environments more representative of the subsurface generally. © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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