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New evidence reveals the important role bacteria played during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill


An international team of scientists, led by Dr. Tony Gutierrez of Heriot-Watt University, have revealed the first evidence that certain species of bacteria thrived on the oil that was released into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Using sophisticated molecular techniques and a collection of hydrocarbon molecules containing specially-labelled carbon atoms, the international team of scientists identified various species of bacteria in surface oil slicks and deeper waters in the Gulf and confirmed their ability to degrade the oil. This work presented unequivocal evidence on the capacity for some of the most dominant bacteria found in the Gulf during the spill to have contributed a significant role in the removal of the oil. The team is also the first to report on the isolation of the most dominant oil-degrading bacteria from the surface oil slicks. Having these organisms to work with in the laboratory is an excellent opportunity to understand more about what they can do, in particular their role during the Gulf spill.

In a complimentary study, the international team also revealed the first evidence that some of these oil-degrading bacteria produced polymers that likely contributed to the formation of a mucus-like "fluffy" material (pictured below) that was found floating in large quantities on the sea surface following the Deepwater Horizon blowout. This material was a distinctive feature to the Deepwater Horizon spill, yet remarkably it attracted little attention by the scientific community. Whilst some researchers have shown that this mucus-like material was laden with microbes and oil droplets, hitherto what triggered its formation remains somewhat enigmatic. Our work shows that certain species of oil-degrading bacteria from the Gulf can actually trigger the formation of this mucus-like material reminiscent to that which was found at the spill site. Intriguingly, these bacteria are capable of producing complex polymers that they release and, like detergents, can effectively make the oil disperse in seawater, consequently allowing the bacteria to degrade the oil more rapidly.


Our findings further increase our understanding on the fate of the oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, and reinforces the important roles that microorganisms play in our environment, such as in cleaning up oil spills. Without oil-degrading bacteria, the Gulf of Mexico, and the world's oceans and seas for that matter, would be continuously covered in a slick of oil.

For more information, see the full articles:

You can also see this story featured in the Scotsman. 

Image captions:

Top: Oil-degrading bacteria isolated from oil slicks that formed on the sea surface in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The green dots are the bacteria, called Alteromonas species, shown here amongst droplets of crude oil (large green blobs).

Bottom: Mucus-like fluffy material