Microbes Munch on Deepwater Horizon Oil


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Oceanospirillales microbes help degrade oil spills. Image by Jodi Switzer Blum, NASA

In the area in which the spill occurred, there was a massive increase in the activity of a number of different microbes; the team discovered different microbial populations that are adapted to degrading different parts of oil.

For example, the researchers found large quantities of Oceanospirillales, a microorganism that degrades cyclic hexanes.

Since they already lived in the neighborhood due to the local oil seeps, these short-lived microbes were able to multiply quickly to respond to the spill.

Exploring the Genes of Oil-Focused Microbes

To pinpoint what microbes were degrading the oil, the research team identified the common microbes in the water, and then looked at their genes. They searched the database of genes to pinpoint microbes that had the genetic ability to degrade oil and examined the microbes’ RNA to see if the microbes were using these genes.

The team then simulated an oil plume in the lab and watched as the same microbial processes worked to degrade that oil. They discovered that there was an ecological succession of microbes, each one degrading a different part of the oil.

While it’s hard to be prepared for a disaster the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon, nature has its ways of addressing the inflow of materials into an environment. The Deepwater Horizon spill caused huge impacts on Gulf ecosystems, but it could have been worse. Although the ecological impacts of the oil spill were severe, thankfully, the waters around the spill housed a fleet of tiny organisms that worked to mitigate some of the effects of this disaster.


Jansson, Janet. Personal Interview. June 21, 2012.

Mason, O., et al. Metagenome, metatranscriptome and single-cell sequencing reveal microbial response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (2012). ISME. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2012.59. Accessed July 6, 2012.

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