Featured Image Credit: NOAA Office of Response and Restoration via Flickr
By: Lindsay Edgar
In 2010, in an event now known as the Deepwater Horizon Spill, the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile oceanic ecosystem became polluted with approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil.
The toxic substance, composed of alkanes and aromatic hydrocarbons (seriously big words for such little molecules!), posed a huge threat to the organisms who called the Gulf their home. Not only did the oil congeal on the surface, but it also settled into the ocean’s sediment. It spread everywhere.
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In a desperate attempt to reverse the damage, dispersants were distributed alongside the oil. At that point in time, the scientific community and the cleanup crew were unaware that certain bacterial species had already appeared at the scene instead of fleeing it.
That’s right – among the estimated 1 trillion microbial species that inhabit the globe, several species of bacteria actually use their natural metabolic processes for good. They actually can reduce the amount of oil waste spilled during disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon Spill.
Image source: Daniel Beltra via www.artspace.com
In a recent publication written by a collaboration of researchers from The University of Texas Marine Science Institute, the University of North Carolina, and Heriot-Watt University, it was suggested that these bacteria have special genes which allow them to adapt to environments with low nutrients.
Their gene sequencing, published in the journal Nature Microbiology, was done in order to further understand the relationship between toxic spills and bacterial function.
One bacteria species in particular, Neptuniibacter, had never before surfaced at an oil spill scene. Yet there it was – working closely alongside the more commonly present Alcanivorax to feast heartily on the oil.
Interestingly, the researchers found that over time the sudden rush of chemicals changed the complete structure of the microbial community in the area. When they returned to the spill site after one year, they noted that the bacterial communities had become more diverse over the time period.
The conclusions drawn from the research show just how adaptable the bacteria are. Their ability to modify themselves to fit a suddenly altered environment is a remarkable characteristic.
Image source: nationswell.com
Unfortunately, oil spills are common in the Gulf. But, luckily, bacteria native to the ecosystem is prepared and ready for action. Think of these small yet mighty organisms as first-responders to the scene of the accident. They assess the damage and do what they can to stabilize the area. Then, they call for backup.
“After the spill, all bacteria work[ed] together to efficiently degrade oil,” commented Nina Dombrowski, a post-doctoral researcher who contributed to the research.”Bacterial communities already present at the site of an oil spill respond[ed] in a rapid and efficient manner, becoming abundant during the spill and actively degrading oil compounds.”
As we get to know the significance of these microorganisms, we can promote understanding and conservation of the microbial world. This knowledge also provides us with helpful insight to reversing the damage done to marine ecosystems.
Minimal damage to our oceans? That’s what we like to hear.