Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Microbes consumed oil in Gulf slick at unexpected rates, study finds

Date:
August 1, 2011
Source:
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Summary:
In the first published study to explain the role of microbes in breaking down the oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, researchers have found that bacterial microbes inside the slick degraded the oil at a rate five times faster than microbes outside the slick -- accounting in large part for the disappearance of the slick some three weeks after Deepwater Horizon's Macondo well was shut off.

A new technique for determing the concentration of oxygen in a liquid sample uses a laser (coming from the green fiber, right) and an oxygen-sensitive sticker called an optode (pale spot) inside the sample bottle. When struck by the laser, the sticker fluoresces; the wavelength of the light it gives off indicates the concentration of oxygen in the fluid around it. WHOI chemist Ben Van Mooy used this method to monitor microbial activity in samples of water taken from within and outside the oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Credit: Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

More than a year after the largest oil spill in history, perhaps the dominant lingering question about the Deepwater Horizon spill is, "What happened to the oil?" Now, in the first published study to explain the role of microbes in breaking down the oil slick on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researchers have come up with answers that represent both surprisingly good news and a head-scratching mystery.

Related Articles


In research scheduled to be published in the Aug. 2 online edition of Environmental Research Letters, the WHOI team studied samples from the surface oil slick and surrounding Gulf waters. They found that bacterial microbes inside the slick degraded the oil at a rate five times faster than microbes outside the slick -- accounting in large part for the disappearance of the slick some three weeks after Deepwater Horizon's Macondo well was shut off.

At the same time, the researchers observed no increase in the number of microbes inside the slick -- something that would be expected as a byproduct of increased consumption, or respiration, of the oil. In this process, respiration combines food (oil in this case) and oxygen to create carbon dioxide and energy.

"What did they do with the energy they gained from this increased respiration?" asked WHOI chemist Benjamin Van Mooy, senior author of the study. "They didn't use it to multiply. It's a real mystery," he said.

Van Mooy and his team were nearly equally taken aback by the ability of the microbes to chow down on the oil in the first place. Going into the study, he said, "We thought microbe respiration was going to be minimal." This was because nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus -- usually essential to enable microbes to grow and make new cells -- were scarce in the water and oil in the slick. "We thought the microbes would not be able to respond," Van Mooy said.

But the WHOI researchers found, to the contrary, that the bacteria not only responded, but did so at a very high rate. They discovered this by using a special sensor called an oxygen optode to track the changing oxygen levels in water samples taken from the slick. If the microbes were respiring slowly, then oxygen levels would decrease slowly; if they respired quickly, the oxygen would decrease quickly.

"We found that the answer was 'quick,'" Van Mooy said. "By a lot."

Bethanie Edwards, a biochemist in Van Mooy's lab and lead author of the paper, said she too was "very surprised" by the amount of oil consumption by the microbes. "It's not what we expected to see." She added that she was also "a little afraid" that oil companies and others might use the results to try to convince the public that spills can do relatively little harm. "They could say, 'Look, we can put oil into the environment and the microbes will eat it,'" she said.

Edwards, a graduate student in the joint MIT/WHOI program, pointed out that this is not completely the case, because oil is composed of a complex mixture molecules, some of which the microbes are unable to break down.

"Oil is still detrimental to the environment, " she said, "because the molecules that are not accessible to microbes persist and could have toxic effects." These are the kinds of molecules that can get into the food web of both offshore and shoreline environments, Edwards and Van Mooy said. In addition, Edwards added, the oil that is consumed by microbes "is being converted to carbon dioxide that still gets into the atmosphere."

Follow-up studies already "are in place," Van Mooy says, to address the "mysterious" finding that the oil-gorging microbes do not appear to manufacture new cells. If the microbes were eating the oil at such a high rate, what did they do with the energy? Van Mooy, Edwards, and their colleagues hypothesize that they may convert the energy to some other molecule, like sugars or fats. They plan to use "state-of-the-art methods" under development in their laboratory to look for bacterial fat molecules, a focus of Van Mooy's previous work. The results, he says, "could show where the energy went."

Van Mooy said he isn't sure exactly what fraction of the oil loss in the spill is due to microbial consumption; other processes, including evaporation, dilution, and dispersion, might have contributed to the loss of the oil slick. But the five-fold increase in the microbe respiration rate suggests it contributed significantly to the oil breakdown. "Extrapolating our observations to the entire area of the oil slick supports the assertion microbes had the potential to degrade a large fraction of the oil as it arrived at the surface from the well," the researchers say in their paper.

"This is the first published study to put numbers on the role of microbes in the degradation of the oil slick," said Van Mooy. "Our study shows that the dynamic microbial community of the Gulf of Mexico supported remarkable rates of oil respiration, despite a dearth of dissolved nutrients," the researchers said.

Edwards added that the results suggest "that microbes had the metabolic potential to break down a large portion of hydrocarbons and keep up with the flow rate from the wellhead."

Also participating in the study from WHOI were researchers Christopher M. Reddy, Richard Camilli, Catherine A. Carmichael, and Krista Longnecker.

The research was supported by RAPID grants from the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Bethanie Edwards, Christopher Reddy, Richard Camilli, Catherine Carmichael, Krista Longnecker, Benjamin Van Mooy. Rapid microbial respiration of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in offshore surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental Research Letters, November 2011 (forthcoming)

Cite This Page:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Microbes consumed oil in Gulf slick at unexpected rates, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 August 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801111752.htm>.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (2011, August 1). Microbes consumed oil in Gulf slick at unexpected rates, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801111752.htm
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "Microbes consumed oil in Gulf slick at unexpected rates, study finds." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110801111752.htm (accessed December 19, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Earth & Climate News

Friday, December 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Navy Unveils Robot Fish

Navy Unveils Robot Fish

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Dec. 18, 2014) The U.S. Navy unveils an underwater device that mimics the movement of a fish. Tara Cleary reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Arctic Warming Twice As Fast As Rest Of Planet

Arctic Warming Twice As Fast As Rest Of Planet

Newsy (Dec. 18, 2014) The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, thanks in part to something called feedback. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Newsy (Dec. 18, 2014) Harvard researchers found children whose mothers were exposed to high pollution levels in the third trimester were twice as likely to develop autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ivory Trade Boom Swamps Law Efforts

Ivory Trade Boom Swamps Law Efforts

Reuters - Business Video Online (Dec. 17, 2014) Demand for ivory has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of African elephants and now a conservation report says the illegal trade is overwhelming efforts to enforce the law. Amy Pollock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins