Gulf of Mexico

Oil Degrading Bacteria from the BP Deepwater horizon oil spill

Trench dug to reveal oil transect on Pensacola Beach in the Gulf of Mexico
sp. Alcanivorax actively growing on oil contaminated artificial seawater media

Studying Oil Degraders

Photosynthetic organisms use energy from sunlight
to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates,
proteins, and fats, with oxygen as a byproduct.
Energy is stored in the newly formed chemicals. When
the organisms die and are buried in sediment, these
chemicals are not destroyed, but rather the heat and
pressure deep underground convert them into a huge
variety of different hydrocarbons – compounds that
contain carbon and hydrogen. The energy stored in
the chemical bonds can be released by burning (that's
what happens in your car's engine), or by a more
precise chemical reaction carried out by enzymes
inside a living cell. These enzymes enable microorganisms
to "combust" the hydrocarbons at much lower
temperatures than burning.

A significant portion of oil from the recent Deepwater Horizon (DH) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was transported to the shoreline, where it may have severe ecological and economic consequences. The objectives of this study were (i) to identify and characterize predominant oil-degrading taxa that may be used as model hydrocarbon degraders or as microbial indicators of contamination and (ii) to characterize the in situ response of indigenous bacterial communities to oil contamination in beach ecosystems. This study was conducted at
municipal Pensacola Beach, FL.  A total of 24 bacterial strains from 14 genera were isolated from oiled beach sands and confirmed as oil-degrading microorganisms. Isolated bacterial strains were primarily Gammaproteobacteria, including representatives of genera with known oil degraders (Alcanivorax, Marinobacter, Pseudomonas, and Acinetobacter). Sequence libraries generated from oiled sands revealed phylotypes that showed high sequence identity (up to 99%) to rRNA gene sequences from the oil-degrading bacterial isolates. Community analysis revealed a distinct response to oil contamination, and SSU rRNA gene abundance derived from the genus Alcanivorax showed the largest increase in relative abundance in contaminated samples.

From the Kostka Lab:

    • Andy Canion
    • Will Overholt
    • Gina Freyer
    • Jonathan Delgardio
    • Patrick Chanton
    • Niki Norton
    • Om Prakash


    • Joel E. Kostka, Om Prakash, Will A. Overholt, Stefan J. Green, Gina Freyer, Andy Canion, Jonathan Delgardio, Nikita Norton, Terry C. Hazen and Markus Huettel. 2011. Hydrocarbon-Degrading Bacteria and the Bacterial Community Response in Gulf of Mexico Beach Sands Impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 77: 7962-7974.