Chemical Dispersant Enhances Microbial Exopolymer (EPS) Production and Formation of Marine Oil/Dispersant Snow in Surface Waters of the Subarctic Northeast Atlantic

Suja, L. D., Chen, X., Summers, S., Paterson, D. M. & Gutierrez, T.
Frontiers in Microbiology
Journal publication date: 

A notable feature of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the unprecedented formation of marine oil snow (MOS) that was observed in large quantities floating on the sea surface and that subsequently sedimented to the seafloor. Whilst the physical and chemical processes involved in MOS formation remain unclear, some studies have shown that extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) play a role in this process. Here, we report that during exposure of subarctic northeast Atlantic seawater to a chemical dispersant, whether in the presence/absence of crude oil, the dispersant stimulates the production of significant quantities of EPS that we posit serves as a key building block in the formation of MOS. This response is likely conferred via de novo synthesis of EPS by natural communities of bacteria. We also describe the formation of marine dispersant snow (MDS) as a product of adding chemical dispersants to seawater. Differential staining confirmed that MDS, like MOS, is composed of glycoprotein, though MDS is more protein rich. Using barcoded-amplicon Illumina MiSeq sequencing, we analyzed, for the first time, the bacterial communities associated with MDS and report that their diversity is not significantly dissimilar to those associated with MOS aggregates. Our findings emphasize the need to conduct further work on the effects of dispersants when applied to oil spills at sea, particularly at different sites, and to determine how the product of this (i.e., MOS and MDS) affects the biodegradation of the oil.