Deepwater Horizon: Microbial Life Acts as an Emergency Cleanup Crew


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Should we modify our oil spill response to account for oil-munching microbes? Photo: DVIDShub / CC by 2.0

Oil Spill Cleanup: Should We Rely on Nature to Help?

Hazen’s research poses an interesting question: When there is an oil spill, should we rely on these oil-munching microbes to do some of the cleanup? Socially, oil spills trigger a fast response. People can see the oil moving onto beaches and damaging plants and wildlife, and it is a nerve-wracking sight. However, Hazen points out that depending on the microbes that are present in a particular area, deep and dispersed oil may be best left to the microbial cleanup crew.

Adding additional chemicals to the water to clean up the oil can cause further problems such as algal blooms. In some circumstances, it might be better to rely on nature to clean up parts of the spill.

But if we want to rely more on the ocean’s ability to clean itself, how do we know when and how to intervene? Hazen is examining microbial life in different ocean areas, and he’s discovered that the life in the water and its ability to degrade oil depends on a number of factors. Do the local microbes currently feast on natural oil seeps? Do they need other nutrients to grow, nutrients that might be limited in that environment? What temperature do they prefer?


A spill might occur in a temperature zone that isn’t the preferred environment of the local, oil-degrading bacteria, or in a place where a lack of nutrients limits the microbes’ ability to increase quickly in numbers. By looking at the genes that these oil-degrading microbes are actively using, Hazen hopes to understand how well microbes in particular areas would be able to respond to an oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon Disaster

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was just that – an event that had ecological consequences for the land and ocean around it. However, by looking a little deeper into the response of ocean life, Dr. Hazen and his colleagues have discovered that the ocean’s tiny life forms have an amazing ability to clean up the waters around them, responding quickly to oil spills with huge changes in their populations. This microbial cleanup crew is the subject of continuing research, as Hazen and others try to determine how well different areas of ocean can naturally respond to catastrophic human-made events.


Hazen, Terry. Personal Interview. April 4, 2013.

NOAA. NOAA Deepwater Horizon Archive. Accessed April 11, 2013.

Photo: Featured Image: Deepwater Horizon oil. Image Credit: Green Fire Productions / CC by 2.0

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