June 4, 2010

NSF Awards Grant To Study Impact of Oil Spill On Microbes

Scientists investigate oil and methane gas introduced by spill into deep, cold waters of Gulf of Mexico

To examine the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on microbes in the waters and sediments near the spill site, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a rapid response grant to marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia (UGA) and colleagues.

The team is aboard the research vessel F.G. Walton Smith in the Gulf of Mexico on an oceanographic research cruise that will return to port this coming weekend.

The grant is one of many such Gulf oil spill-related rapid response grants NSF has awarded to date, and will make in the near future.

"The scientists involved in these efforts are a national asset through which we can gain an understanding of the ecosystem impacts of this vast oil spill," said Phillip Taylor, acting director of NSF's ocean sciences division.

"NSF is well-poised, with its rapid-response flexibility, to enable these researchers to help the large federal government response."

The release of oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident on April 20, 2010, is of greater magnitude and scope than any previous spill.

It's also unique as it has introduced both oil and methane gas into the deep, cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"So far, little attention has been given to the offshore oceanic impacts of the spill," said Joye.

The oil well riser, she said, is releasing substantial amounts of gas along with the oil.

"This combination of oil and gas could stimulate a broader microbial population," said Joye, "as well as potentially alter the distribution of the leaking material, possibly leading to more oil and gas pooling in deep waters and sediments."

A diverse microbial community thrives in the sediments and deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico.

"These microorganisms are used to 'seeing' low quantities of oil and gas, which come from natural seepage," she said.

"This spill is different because a very large amount of oil and gas is being introduced into a focused area. The microbial response to this sudden infusion is likely to be dramatic."

The scientists are focusing on a 5-mile area around the spill site, locating, tracking and chasing a large underwater plume.

The largest plume, estimated at more than 15 miles long, 5 miles wide and 300 feet thick at depths from 2,300 to 4,200 feet, is located south/southwest of Deepwater Horizon.

"This research is essential to assessing how massive amounts of oil will affect the health of the Gulf of Mexico in both the short- and long-term," said David Garrison, director of NSF's biological oceanography program.

Joye and other researchers are collecting samples of sediments, deepwaters and surface waters at 20 sites in the spill area.

The team is studying the factors regulating the activity of microbes in the water column, including nutrient availability, methane concentration, trace metals and vitamins, and the impact of oil on key microbial processes, including the oxidation of methane.

"It's critical to evaluate the pelagic and deep sediment impacts of the spill on microbial processes," said Joye.


Image 1: Researchers are studying the impact of the oil spill on microbes in Gulf waters and sediments. Credit: Samantha Joye/University of Georgia (UGA)

Image 2: Microbes aren't the only oil-soaked life: jellyfish and others are also affected. Credit: Samantha Joye/University of Georgia (UGA)


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