Microbial response to oil enrichment in Gulf of Mexico sediment measured using a novel long-term benthic lander system Academic Article uri icon

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  • Weathered crude oil sank to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, removing this oil from further physical and photo-chemical degradation processes and leaving benthic processes as the mechanisms for altering and remediating this hydrocarbon source. To quantify potential microbial oil degradation rates at the seafloor, and associated changes in sediment microbial community structure and pore fluid composition, we used a benthic lander system to deploy novel sediment flow-through chambers at a natural hydrocarbon seep in the Gulf of Mexico (at a depth of 1226 m in lease block GC600) roughly 265 km southwest of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead (at 1500 m depth). Sediment amended with 20% unweathered crude oil had elevated rates of sulfate reduction over the course of the 5-month-long experiment as compared to an unamended control, yielding potential rates of sulfate reduction (600–800 mmol m–2 d–1) among the highest measured in hydrocarbon-influenced seafloor sediment. Oil amendment also stimulated methane production towards the end of the experiment, and led to slightly higher cell densities without significant changes in microbial community structure, based on 16S rRNA gene sequence libraries and fatty acid profiles. Assuming a link between sulfate reduction and hydrocarbon degradation, these results suggest that electron acceptor availability may become limiting in heavily oiled deep-sea environments, resulting in minimal degradation of deposited oil. This study provides unique data on seafloor sediment responses to oil deposition, and reveals the value of using observatories to fill the gap in understanding deep-sea microbial processes, especially for ephemeral and stochastic events such as oil spills.


  • Orcutt, Beth N
  • Lapham, Laura L
  • Delaney, Jennifer
  • Sarode, Neha
  • Marshall, Kathleen S
  • Whaley-Martin, Kelly J
  • Slater, Greg
  • Wheat, C Geoff
  • Girguis, Peter R

publication date

  • January 1, 2017