Chemical dispersants may affect natural communities of oil-degrading bacteria after spills

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A NASA satellite image shows the spread of oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Lab tests show nuanced response to application of oil dispersant chemicals

Staff Report

Lab tests suggest that more thought must be given to how dispersant chemicals are used during and after an oil spill. In some cases, the combination of dispersants and oil may actually inhibit microorganisms that can break down hydrocarbons, according to marine scientists.

“These compelling results show the naturally occurring communities of oil-degrading microorganisms, especially Marinobacter, are quite proficient at degrading oil and that oil biodegradation was more efficient in the absence of chemical dispersants,” said University of Georgia professor Samantha Joye, who has been intensively studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Spill for the past several years.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, simulated oil concentrations and dispersants concentrations observed during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The researchers found that the presence of dispersants significantly altered the microbial composition of Gulf deep water by promoting the growth of Colwellia, a group of microorganisms capable of dispersant degradation. However, when oil alone was added to parallel samples in the absence of chemical dispersants, the growth of natural hydrocarbon-degrading Marinobacter was stimulated.

“During the spill, Marinobacter were not abundant in deep-water plume samples, possibly as a consequence of dispersant applications,” said study co-author Sara Kleindienst, with the University of Tübingen, Germany. “Whether natural hydrocarbon degraders were outcompeted by dispersant degraders or whether they were directly affected by dispersant-derived compounds needs to be resolved in future studies.”

Chemical dispersants were applied in an unprecedented volume to the sea surface and deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 spill. As a “first line of defense,” 7 million liters (about 1.8 million gallons) of chemical dispersants were applied to increase the use and breakdown of oil compounds by microorganisms.

The uncontrolled oil well blowout released more than 750 million liters of oil into the Gulf.

“Our results showed preferential degradation and enrichment of distinct organic compounds when dispersant is used to chemically break up oil,” said study co-author Patricia Medeiros, an assistant professor of marine sciences at UGA. “In the future, it will be important to further study these compounds and possibly include them when tracking the fate of oil-dispersant mixtures in the environment.”

The study addresses fundamental questions about the use of chemical dispersants and how they affect both the oil discharge from accidents and the indigenous microbial community. This comprehensive data set, including direct measurements of oil biodegradation rates, raises concerns about whether chemical dispersants stimulate microbial oil degradation in the ocean.

“The fact that dispersants drove distinct microbial community shifts that impacted oil degradation efficiently came as a big surprise,” Joye said. “It is critical to quantify the factors that influence the efficiency of oil biodegradation in the environment, and that includes dispersants.”

This research was supported by the Ecosystem Impact of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) research consortium, which is funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

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