Working in the Gulf of Mexico

While we have teams scattered across the United States, our main research site is the Gulf of Mexico. Federal offshore oil production in the Gulf accounts for 17% of total U.S. crude oil production and over 45% of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf coast.

Understanding how marine microbes respond to oil spills

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill

4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion creating an oil slick the size of Connecticut (visible from space as seen in this NASA satellite photo). 1.84 million gallons of a commercial-grade dispersant were sprayed on the surface of the ocean and injected at the wellhead. Scientists are still struggling to understand the full impact of the oil and dispersants on marine life.

 

ADDOMEx is a group of researchers that is funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to investigate the impacts of spilled oil and dispersants on the formation of an extracellular matrix called EPS (exopolymeric substances) formed by marine microbes that is thought to be instrumental in determining the fate of oil. EPS formed by marine microbes can aid in the formation of marine snow that is important in the self-cleansing capacity of natural waters. It does this by binding to and aggregating particulates, oil, and debris in the water, thus causing them to sink to the seafloor.

Marine snow has been found to aid both in the dispersal and in the sinking of oil droplets from oil spills; marine microbes and phytoplankton can even use the hydrocarbons found in the oil as a source of food! However, it is hypothesized that the addition of dispersants (used to literally disperse the oil into the water column, much like dish soap in a greasy pan) can impede the formation of marine snow. Our consortium aims to investigate these interactions to better understand how the presence of oil can trigger the formation of EPS and subsequently aid in its degradation.

November 2017
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Funded by: GoMRI