Toward a Predictive Understanding of the Benthic Microbial Community Response to Oiling on the Northern Gulf of Mexico Coast
Benthic ecosystems often act as a repository for oil contamination that washes ashore or is deposited onto sediments following a major oil spill. Sedimentary microorganisms mediate central ecosystem services on the coast, such as carbon and nutrient cycling, and these services may be adversely impacted by oil perturbation. Thus, during the response to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil discharge in the Gulf of Mexico, considerable effort went into characterizing the response of benthic microbial communities to oil deposition on shorelines of the Northern Gulf where oil came ashore. Oil perturbation elicited a pronounced microbial response in coastal ecosystems, altering the abundance, diversity, and community composition of sedimentary microorganisms. Next-generation gene sequencing and metagenomic approaches, which were not available during previous large oil spills, have revolutionized the field of microbiology, providing new insights into the microbial response after the DWH discharge. This review centers on a case study of the fate of oil contamination in Pensacola Beach sands, which sheds light on the mechanisms of microbially mediated hydrocarbon degradation and the impacts of oiling to ecosystem functions. Analysis of field and laboratory results is discussed along with the technological advances that made these observations possible. Metagenomics enabled the application of ecological theory, thereby building a stronger foundation for the effective prediction of baseline microbial community structure/function and response to oiling. Oil perturbation was shown to resemble a press ecosystem disturbance according to the disturbance-specialization hypothesis. Benthic microbial communities were shown to be resilient, maintained ecosystem functions, and recovered quickly after oil disturbance.
KeywordsSediment Nearshore Gulf of Mexico Microorganisms Petroleum hydrocarbons Bacteria Benthic Deepwater Horizon
This research was made possible by grants from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative through its consortia: The Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE), Deep Sea to Coast Connectivity in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (Deep-C). This research was also supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (to MH, JEK, WAO), the Florida Institute of Oceanography (to MH and JEK), and the Northern Gulf Institute (to MH and JEK).
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