Environ. Res. Lett. 6: 035301
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was one of the largest oil spills in history, and the fate of this oil within the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem remains to be fully understood. The goal of this study—conducted in mid-June of 2010, approximately two months after the oil spill began—was to understand the key role that microbes would play in the degradation of the oil in the offshore oligotrophic surface waters near the Deepwater Horizon site. As the utilization of organic carbon by bacteria in the surface waters of the Gulf had been previously shown to be phosphorus limited, we hypothesized that bacteria would be unable to rapidly utilize the oil released from the Macondo well. Although phosphate was scarce throughout the sampling region and microbes exhibited enzymatic signs of phosphate stress within the oil slick, microbial respiration within the slick was enhanced by approximately a factor of five. An incubation experiment to determine hydrocarbon degradation rates confirmed that a large fraction of this enhanced respiration was supported by hydrocarbon degradation. Extrapolating our observations to the entire area of the slick suggests that microbes had the potential to degrade a large fraction of the oil as it arrived at the surface from the well. These observations decidedly refuted our hypothesis. However, a concomitant increase in microbial abundance or biomass was not observed in the slick, suggesting that microbial growth was nutrient limited; incubations amended with nutrients showed rapid increases in cell number and biomass, which supported this conclusion. Our study shows that the dynamic microbial community of the Gulf of Mexico supported remarkable rates of oil respiration, despite a dearth of dissolved nutrients.