Production of Aspergillus niger biomass on sugarcane distillery wastewater: physiological aspects and potential for biodiesel production
© The Author(s) 2018
Received: 25 August 2017
Accepted: 8 January 2018
Published: 16 January 2018
Sugarcane distillery waste water (SDW) or vinasse is the residual liquid waste generated during sugarcane molasses fermentation and alcohol distillation. Worldwide, this effluent is responsible for serious environmental issues. In Reunion Island, between 100 and 200 thousand tons of SDW are produced each year by the three local distilleries. In this study, the potential of Aspergillus niger to reduce the pollution load of SDW and to produce interesting metabolites has been investigated.
The fungal biomass yield was 35 g L−1 corresponding to a yield of 0.47 g of biomass/g of vinasse without nutrient complementation. Analysis of sugar consumption indicated that mono-carbohydrates were initially released from residual polysaccharides and then gradually consumed until complete exhaustion. The high biomass yield likely arises from polysaccharides that are hydrolysed prior to be assimilated as monosaccharides and from organic acids and other complex compounds that provided additional C-sources for growth. Comparison of the size exclusion chromatography profiles of raw and pre-treated vinasse confirmed the conversion of humic- and/or phenolic-like molecules into protein-like metabolites. As a consequence, chemical oxygen demand of vinasse decreased by 53%. Interestingly, analysis of intracellular lipids of the biomass revealed high content in oleic acid and physical properties relevant for biodiesel application.
The soft-rot fungus A. niger demonstrated a great ability to grow on vinasse and to degrade this complex and hostile medium. The high biomass production is accompanied by a utilization of carbon sources like residual carbohydrates, organic acids and more complex molecules such as melanoidins. We also showed that intracellular lipids from fungal biomass can efficiently be exploited into biodiesel.
Sugarcane molasses fermentation and distillation into rum lead to the production of wastewater called stillage, vinasse, distillery wastewater or distillery spent wash. Every produced litre of ethanol brings about from 10 to 18 litres of sugarcane distillery wastewater (SDW) depending on distillation process and waste treatment . SDW is a dark brown effluent characterized by a specific obnoxious odour, a high chemical oxygen demand (COD) and a total organic carbon (TOC) that can reach up to 120 and 17 g L−1 respectively [2, 3]. According to Wilkie et al. , COD is 4–5 times higher in sugarcane molasse stillage as compared to sugarcane juice stillage. Depending on the sugarcane origin and the industrial process for ethanol production, intrinsic composition of SDW can vary significantly. They generally have acidic pH (from 3.8 to 5) due to the presence of organic acids produced by the yeasts during the alcoholic fermentation process . A high mineral load was also reported due to the presence of sulphur, potassium, phosphate, calcium and sodium [6, 7]. The high organic load of SDW is mainly composed of melanoidins which are produced through Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins and caramels from overheated sugars that are responsible for their colour and odour. Vinasse also contains other refractory materials such as phenolic compounds, anthocyanins, tannins and furfurans (for example hydroxyl methyl furfural) which can reach up to 10 g L−1 [8–10]. The colloidal nature of caramels makes them resistant to decomposition and toxic to microflora . SDW also contains residual sugars and soluble proteins generated by the fermenting yeasts .
All these characteristics combined with the high volume of SDW produced worldwide cause significant environmental issues. Over the last decades and due to their high inorganic loads, SDW have been widely used as agricultural fertilizer  but spreading is made now statutory difficult due to their low pH, dark colour and chemical content which may be responsible for groundwater contamination and soil compaction . Their high polluting loads lead to a modification of the soil composition and can cause eutrophication of the waterways because of the presence of proteins residues and furfurals [4, 15]. Moreover, melanoidins cause reduction of sunlight penetration, of photosynthetic activity and of dissolved oxygen concentration in natural aqueous environment, whereas on land, they cause reduction of soil alkalinity and inhibition of seed germination. In consequence, phenolic compounds and melanoidins may inhibit the activity of microorganisms contained in soils and aquatic environments [9, 10, 15].
Several methods have been described in literature for the use and disposal of SDW [10, 15, 16]. Among them, aerobic treatment of SDW has been proposed for decolourisation and COD reduction purposes. A number of microorganisms, such as yeast and fungi were found to be able to degrade melanoidins and to significantly decrease the COD vinasse . Preliminary experiments performed in the lab (unpublished data) showed that only a few molds are capable of growing on crude SDW, such as Aspergillus strains and anamorphs. Aspergillus niger is able to grow on a large variety of substrates, a wide range of temperatures (6–47 °C) and pH (1.4–9.8), explaining the ubiquitous occurrence of this species that is encountered with a higher frequency in warm and humid environments . A. niger is also known to be a good producer of extracellular enzymes with significant industrial importance, including amylases, proteases, pectinases, lipases as well as valuable molecules with industrial interest such as citric, oxalic or gluconic acids [18, 19]. A. niger is also used for organic waste enhancement  and its capacity to grow on diluted or supplemented SDW was observed [21–23]. However, the physiological growth characteristics of this micro-organism cultured in crude sugarcane distillery spent wash has not yet been reported. In addition, bioremediation and potential valorisation of crude SDW were estimated through the production of A. niger biomass as a valuable source for biofuel.
Fungal strains, growth conditions and culture media
The strain used in this study was Aspergillus niger MUCL 28820 from BCCM (Brussels, Belgium) strain collection. The strain was maintained routinely on potato dextrose agar plates (PDA). A suspension of A. niger spores was prepared as follow: spores, grown on PDA and incubated at 28 °C for 72 h, were harvested using a glass loop and suspended in sterile physiological water (NaCl 0.8%). Cellular concentration was calculated using a Thoma-Zeiss counting chamber. Growth experiments were performed during 10 days, after inoculation with 100 µL of spore suspension. Ten flasks containing 50 mL of sterile SDW liquid medium at a starting concentration of 105 spores mL−1 were plugged with sterile cotton carded and placed on a rotary shaker at 150 rpm at 28 °C. Assays were performed in three independent biological experiments. Every day, at the same hour, the biomass of three flasks was harvested by filtration for further analysis (see below) and this was repeated until day 10.
SDW medium was prepared as follows: raw SDW (85 °C) was harvested in decontaminated barrel directly from the output of the distillation column from distillery “Rivière du Mât” (Saint-Benoit, Reunion Island) and cooled to room temperature. SDW from the distillery still contains the residual inactivated yeast biomass used during alcohol fermentation. SDW samples were harvested during the sugar production period (i.e. between July and December) in 2012 and in 2014 and were frozen and stored at − 20 °C until use. For each experiment, a new batch of frozen DSW was thawed and then sterilized by autoclaving for 20 min at 121 °C. Such autoclaved DSW medium was microbiologically stable over time (Additional file 1).
Lipid accumulation medium (LAM) contained 30 g L−1 glucose, 1.5 g L−1 yeast extract, 0.5 g L−1 NH4Cl, 5.0 g L−1 Na2HPO4 (12H2O), 7.0 g L−1 KH2PO4, 1.5 g L−1 MgSO4 (7H2O), 0.1 g L−1 CaCl2 (2H2O), 0.01 g L−1 ZnSO4 (7H2O), 0.08 g L−1 FeCl3 (6H2O), 0.1 mg L−1 CuSO4 (5H2O), 0.1 mg L−1 Co(NO3)2 (6H2O), 0.1 mg L−1 MnSO4 (5H2O) and pH was adjusted to 5.5 according to .
Fungal biomass determination
The concentration of total suspended solids (TSS) in the broth medium of each culture flask was determined by filtration of 50 mL of SDW (treated or not by A. niger) through a cellulose filter paper Whatman No. 1 (porosity 11 µm) previously dried for 24 h at 105 °C. The insoluble suspended solids kept on the filter (see example on Fig. 1) were dried during 24 h in an oven at 105 °C and the obtained dry mass was weighed to provide TSS concentration. Therefore, TSS contained the fungal biomass produced during growth of A. niger as well as the initial suspended yeast biomass contained in raw SDW. Fungal biomass was thus estimated by subtracting the total suspended matter of raw SDW to the total mass harvested on the filter.
Determination of carbohydrates and organic acids from filtrates of crude and pre-treated SDW
The carbohydrate concentration of the filtrates collected from crude SDW and SDW treated with A. niger, were analysed by High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) (Dionex Ultimate 3000) using an Evaporative Light Scattering (ELS) detector (VARIAN) and a Hi-plex Ca column (Varian, C18 bound—7.7 mm of diameter × 300 mm of length). A mobile phase of ultrapure water with a flow of 0.4 mL min−1 was used. The oven temperature was programmed at 80 °C. Alternatively, High-Pressure Ion Chromatography (HPIC) (Dionex) using a pulsed amperometric detector and a CarboPack PA1 column was used. A mobile phase of NaOH (150 mM) at 1.5 mL min−1 was used at an oven temperature of 30 °C. Analysis of organic acids was also performed by HPLC (Dionex Ultimate 3000), using a UV detector at 214 nm and an OA Acclaim column (Varian, Silica, C18 bound, reverse phase, 4.6 mm of diameter × 150 mm of length). The mobile phase was composed of 100 mM Na2SO4 set at pH of 2.65 with methanesulfonic acid (Sigma-Aldrich, CAS number 75-75-2) and the flow rate was 0.6 mL min−1. For all analyses, 20 μL of samples diluted 100-fold for organic acids and 50-fold for carbohydrates in water were injected using an automatic autosampler. The identification and the quantification of carbohydrates (mannitol, glucose, fructose, sucrose) and organic acids (itaconic acid, trans-aconitic acid, citric acid, isocitric acid, oxalic acid) were made by determination of retention time of the commercial standards and establishment of calibration curves using external standard method. Treatment of the results was done using Chromeleon 7.2 Chromatography Data System (Dionex).
SEC profiles obtained from filtrates of crude and pre-treated SDW
EEM profiles obtained from filtrates of crude and pre-treated SDW
A three-dimensional excitation emission matrix (3-D EEM) was determined on the SDW filtrates (raw or treated with A. niger) and on the SEC fractions, using a spectrofluorophotometer (Shimadzu RF-5301 PC) with a 150-W Xenon lamp as the excitation source. Excitation scans were performed from 220 to 450 nm at 10 nm increments; emission scans were collected from 220 to 500 nm. The fluorescence data was processed using the Panorama Fluorescence 3.1 software (LabCognition, Japan). Prior to measurements, fractions of SEC samples were diluted by 3–100 times using 50 mM phosphate buffer (pH 7.0 ± 0.1) to avoid fluorescence signal saturation. However, due to the impact of water noise, only emissions obtained at excitation wavelengths exceeding 275 nm were considered for a wavelength emission exceeding 375 nm. Gallic acid (Sigma), used as polyphenols standard  was also diluted in phosphate buffer for analysis. Fluorescence was measured using a 1.0 cm quartz cell.
Lipid extraction from A. niger biomass and conversion into biodiesel
Intracellular lipids were extracted using a pressurized liquid extraction method (PLE). 200 mg of lyophilized biomass was mixed with Fontainebleau sand to fill a 10 mL stainless steel vial suitable for PLE. The extraction was carried out using chloroform/methanol (2/1) at 100 °C during 10 min (three times), then 10 mL of water was added to the extract and thoroughly mixed. Two phases were obtained after overnight separation. The organic phase was dried over anhydrous MgSO4, filtered and concentrated using a rotative evaporator. Finally, the concentrate was suspended in 3 mL CHCl3, transferred to a pre-weighed bottle and evaporated overnight. The bottle was weighted to determine the mass of extracted lipids. Transesterification was performed according to a procedure described by . Briefly, 5 mL of 2% H2SO4/CH3OH (v/v) was added to the extracted lipids and the mixture was reflux heated at 70 °C during 1 h under constant stirring. The flasks were then cooled at room temperature. Next, 2 mL of hexane and 0.75 mL of distilled water were added to the flasks and mixed. The two phases were allowed to separate and the upper hexane layer was recovered and dried over anhydrous magnesium sulphate.
Analysis of the fatty acid composition was carried out on a CP3800 Gas chromatograph (Varian) equipped with a SG BPX-70 capillary column (50 m × 0.22 mm × 0.25 µm) and a flame ionization detector. The operating conditions were 240 °C injector temperature, 260 °C detector temperature, 1.3 mL min−1 flow rate and oven temperature programmed from 120 to 230 °C at 3 °C min−1 then 230 °C for 17 min. 0.5 µL of transesterification product was injected and subjected to a split ratio of 5 at 0.5 min then 50 at 5 min. The percentage of the peak area was assumed to be the percentage content of the corresponding compounds.
Results and discussion
Physico-chemical characteristics of SDW from Reunion Island
Physico-chemical parameters of raw SDW
Comparison of physico-chemical parameters of raw SDW and treated SDW filtrates obtained after 10 days of aerobic fermentation by A. niger
Raw SDW (day 0)
Fermented SDW (day 10)
COD (g L−1)
TDS (g L−1)
114 ± 12.8
89 ± 7.07
TSSa (g L−1)
8.13 ± 1.41
43.42 ± 1.2
TN (g L−1)
Ashes (g L−1)
38.5 ± 2.33
43.2 ± 1.94
Physico-chemical parameters of SDW after treatment with A. niger
To assess the bioremediation potential of A. niger, the physico-chemical parameters of SDW were measured 10 days after the inoculation of the fungal spores in SDW. As shown in Table 1, a pH increase (from 4.6 to 5.4) and a decrease in OD475nm (linked to decolourisation) were observed during aerobic fermentation of SDW. TDS were significantly reduced from 114 to 89 g L−1 and this essentially concerns organic matter reduction since the mineral load was not significantly modified. A reduction of COD and TN by 53 and 27% respectively were observed, indicating a significant decrease of the organic pollutant load of SDW. The pH increase could result from the degradation of organic substances with peptidic moieties or with amino group like humic substances, melanoidins, peptides or amino acids initially contained in SDW medium. The carbon/nitrogen (C/N) ratio remained globally unchanged indicating that the fertilizing potential of SDW remained the same after the fermentation process.
Bioremediation potential of A. niger on SDW was partially described in literature. A maximal colour elimination of 69% and a maximal COD removal of 75% were obtained when MgSO4, KH2PO4, NH4NO3 and a carbon source were added to SDW . Also, immobilized A. niger resulted in a 80% decolourisation of previously anaerobically biodigested SDW . Finally, the observed COD and colour decrease suggested that refractory molecules like melanoidins and other aromatic compounds were hydrolysed into simple ones. Such hydrolysis of some refractory compounds may contribute to the strong decrease of the measured COD (− 53%) because of the release of acidic moieties impacting on the oxidation degree of the polymers. In this way, qualitative characteristics of organic matter from raw and pre-treated SDW were investigated.
Physiology of A. niger cultured on SDW
Global biomass production
Concomitantly to the modification of some physicochemical parameters, important biomass production was observed in the SDW medium after 10 days of A. niger aerobic growth (Fig. 1 and Table 1). Fungal growth was evaluated by measurement of the total suspended solids in the broth medium that reached 43.4 g L−1 after 10 days. Given that the residual yeast biomass contained in raw SDW amounted to 8.1 g L−1, a net production of 35.3 g L−1 of fungal biomass in SDW after 10 fermentation days could then be estimated. In addition to carbon containing substrates, residual dead yeasts contained in raw SDW (inactivated during the distillation process and newly sterilised before use) are most likely to play a role during growth such as bringing important nitrogen source. Consequently, SDW was considered as an interesting growth medium for A. niger biomass production. In their study, Oshoma et al.  demonstrated that the final concentration of A. niger biomass could be increased from 1.63 to 2.75 g L−1 Dry weight (DW) after nitrogen supplementation of cassava whey by yeast extract (2 g L−1). By comparison, growth of A. niger on SDW from Brazil distilleries in which the yeast biomass was removed led to a biomass production of 8–13 g L−1 DW . Here, the biomass production was much higher since until 35 g L−1 of A. niger biomass can be produced after 10 days on raw sugarcane vinasse without any supplementation. Considering that total organic matter of raw vinasse corresponds to TDS without ashes (75.5 g L−1), a high biomass yield of 0.47 g g−1 on initial organic compounds can be reached. This yield is similar to that obtained by  that investigate the capability of A. niger to utilize lignocellulose-derived compounds after thermochemical pre-treatment of spruce wood chips. However, because of the presence of fermentation inhibitors, the pre hydrolysate medium had to be diluted 2 or 4 times to allow A. niger growth with a maximal volumetric biomass yield of 7 g L−1 and a biomass yield on initial carbon source of 0.46 g g−1.
When looking more carefully at the biomass production profile (Fig. 2), initial growth occurring during the first 120 h (day 5) did not appear to occur exponentially, but rather linearly. This observation would strengthen the hypothesis that the growth is mainly limited by the availability of fermentable sugars which are slowly and linearly produced through the activity of specific hydrolases from A. niger acting on complex polymers.
Organic acids utilization
Concentration (g L−1) of organic acids and pH measured in SDW filtrates after 0, 7 and 10 days of aerobic fermentation by A. niger
0.70 ± 0.25
0.63 ± 0.26
0.88 ± 0.22
0.87 ± 0.28
5.71 ± 0.51
4.54 ± 1.4
4.32 ± 0.77
1.59 ± 0.37
2.84 ± 0.76
3.37 ± 0.28
1.36 ± 0.91
2.47 ± 0.46
2.52 ± 0.17
2.77 ± 0.41
0.61 ± 0.18
0.52 ± 0.14
1.45 ± 0.53
0.38 ± 0.14
4.6 ± 0.1
5.07 ± 0.49
5.93 ± 1.21
5.37 ± 0.13
Taken together, these results showed that growth of A. niger on SDW is a complex process. Free carbohydrates initially present in the media (namely glucose, fructose and mannitol) and other fermentable sugars probably released from complex polymers through hydrolytic activity of the fungal enzymes, are first consumed during the early growth phase. When free sugars disappeared from the medium (after 7–8 days of culture), growth continued on the free organic acids accumulated in the medium as well as other sugars released by A. niger hydrolases.
SDW biochemical fingerprints
Global EEM profiles of raw and pre-treated SDW
Concerning the SDW media, both matrixes were composed by four peaks with similar excitation/emission wavelengths (λEx/λEm) position and intensity (Fig. 3a, b): (1) for λEm < 380 nm, peak A and peak B were located in the regions corresponding to protein-like (PN-like) and phenolic acid-like (PA-like) compounds respectively  and peak A was much more intense than peak B (2) for λEm > 380 nm, peaks D and C were associated with quinine-like components and could be related to humic acid-like (HA-like) substances . These results were in good accordance with the results obtained by  which highlighted these groups of fluorophores (A, B and C-D areas) in sugarcane vinasse. In this way, EEM determined on the soluble SDW fractions (treated or not) did not allow to clearly show EEM modifications pattern related to A. niger metabolism (four independent replicates were analysed; only one replicate was shown). This can be explained by the complexity of the SDW medium that contains highly fluorescent molecules possibly covering the detection of other ones. Moreover, only specific molecules with aromatic ring are detected by EEM.
EEM profiles after size fractionation of raw and fermented SDW
In order to evaluate whether the SDW has been altered by A. niger treatment, size fractionation of raw and 5-days fermented SDW was chosen to provide a synthetic view of their composition and size distribution. SEC chromatograms were first monitored by absorbance detection at 210 nm and 280 nm but raw and fermented SDW filtrates displayed similar profiles (data not shown). Regarding the EEM spectra of the two SDW samples (Fig. 3a, b), high fluorescence intensities could be noticed on the PN-like region (peak A). One common couple of wavelengths (λEx/λEm = 221/350 nm) that was previously described by  for detection of tryptophan containing PN-like molecules was then selected for SEC monitoring. Fluorescent compounds detected in this region (peak A) were reported by  as soluble microbial products associated to microbial activity or to cellular material.
Biochemical properties of the fractions eluted after SEC fractionation of raw and fermented SDW: quantitative distribution of each fraction and ratio of maxima fluorescence intensity for the three A, B and C peak areas detected in their EEM
Repartition of peak area compared to total area (%)
A/B EEM peak area
A/C EEM peak area
24 ± 2
38 ± 1
41.5 ± 1.5
45 ± 1
49 ± 1.5
52.25 ± 1.25
55.75 ± 2.25
To further investigate the effect of A. niger fermentation on the biochemical characteristics of vinasse, F1 to F7 fractions were collected and their EEM were determined (Fig. 4b). For better specificity towards PN-like detection, the ratios A/B and A/C of maxima fluorescence intensity for these different zones were calculated (Table 3). As shown in Fig. 4b, EEM fingerprints were quite similar for raw and fermented SDW. Globally, F2 fraction was more enriched in HA-like substances (ratio peak C/A more important for F2 fraction than for others) whereas F7 fraction was especially enriched in PA-like molecules (ratio peak B/A more important for F7 fraction and especially for SDW filtrate). EEM fingerprints of F3, F5 and F6 fractions were slightly impacted by fermentation. For F3 and F5, the A/C ratio was increased by a factor of 2.8 and 1.7 after fermentation respectively whereas A/B ratio was unchanged. That might be linked to the increase in PN-like and/or the hydrolysis of HA-like molecules during A. niger fermentation. On the other hand, concerning F6 fractions, the A/C ratio was reduced by a factor 1.9, decreasing from a value of 3.5–1.8 after fermentation. So, fermentation has decreased the level of HA-like substances in fractions F3 and F5 whereas these substances were recovered in a higher amount in F6 fractions.
According to these results, some physiological aspects of A. niger fermentation of raw SDW can be proposed: (1) production of high apparent molecular weight (F1 fraction) and hydrolysed (F3 and F5 fractions) PN-like molecules (2) hydrolysis of HA-like substances (F3 and F5 fractions) in smaller HA-like molecules, (F6 fraction) inducing vinasse decolourisation. This approach also demonstrated that SEC coupled with fluorescence monitoring at λEx/λEm = 221/350 nm is a good alternative for determination of vinasse biochemical fingerprints. This strategy was previously used to show the impact of biological aggregate sludge and origin of aggregate on exopolymeric substances fingerprint for which number of peaks and their intensity were easily identified with the specific PN-like fluorescence detection .
Lipid extraction from A. niger biomass and total Single Cell Oil yield
Biomass production, lipid content and lipid composition of A. niger grown on LAM and SDW media during 10 days
(% of DW)
The composition of the lipids extracted from biomass produced on LAM and SDW was respectively 18.2 and 24.9% for palmitic acid (16:0), 28.2 and 17.2% for oleic acid (18:1, n-9) and 39.4 and 42.7% for linoleic acid (18:2, n-6). Stearic (18:0) and α-linolenic (18:3, n-3) acids were produced to a lesser extent by A. niger on both media (Table 4). Singh  reported that A. niger biomass grown on glucose medium contained mostly linoleic acid (50%) and to a lesser extent, palmitic, stearic and linolenic acids (8.3, 5.2 and 6% respectively). Whatever the medium used, linolenic acid appeared as the major intracellular lipid of A. niger biomass; however, it can be noticed that A. niger grown on glucose medium and on LAM were richer in oleic acid than biomass grown on SDW (23.5 and 28.19 against 17.23%) . By comparison, biodiesel from Yarrowia lipolytica  contained twice higher oleate esters but less than three times linoleate esters than biodiesel from A. niger grown on SDW. This suggests that lipids produced from A. niger could be an interesting alternative to the ones produced by microorganisms such as yeasts .
Most relevant physical characteristics of biodiesel extracted and converted from A. niger biomass grown on LAM and SDW media during 10 days
Viscosity (η) (mm2 s−1)
Density (ρ) (g cm−3)
HHV (δ) (MJ kg−1)
< − 15d,1; < 0d,2
ASTM D 6751-08a
This study demonstrated that raw SDW contains suitable organic substrates for growth of A. niger including monosaccharides, organic acids and complex polymers. The growth reached up to 35.29 g L−1 DW fungal biomass with a biomass yield of 0.47 g per g of SDW organic compounds. Aerobic fermentation of raw SDW led to vinasse decolourization with pH increase and COD decrease, dropping thus significantly the pollutant load. Biochemical fingerprints revealed that high molecular weight PN-like components were secreted by A. niger during growth while some PA and/or HA-like molecules were consumed. Intracellular lipids from biomass showed good physical characteristics for use as biofuel giving new insights for concomitant bioremediation and carbon reuse of SDW medium.
GCT, JH, MW, IG, IB, EGN and TP performed the experimental and laboratory work. GCT, JH, ASCS, YC, IG, IB, JMF, EGN and TP worked on the analysis and interpretation of the data and contributed with valuable discussions. GCT, JH, LA, IB, JMF, EGN and TP conceived the project, worked on the structure and wrote the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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This work was financially supported by the Regional Council of La Reunion (French overseas territory).
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