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Measuring the Impact on Microbial Diversity after an Oil Spill

As the U.S. struggles with the after effects of the oil spill on tourism, animal health, and food safety due to the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, microbiologists are stuggling to determine the scope of damage to microbial diversity in the ocean water and sediment.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20th, 2010 that resulted in the deaths of 11 workers is still not capped and leaks an estimated 1.47 million gallons of oil a day (see ticker below). Current estimates of total oil spilled as of July 1st are at a record 140.6 million gallons, and with weather conditions this time of year, reports of oil and tar balls washing up along all the Gulf states (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) are being confirmed.

Ecological Impact

In terms of the ecology and effect on wildlife in the Gulf, as of July 5th, the total counts of dead birds, sea turtles, and mammals, as reported in the Fish and Wildlife collection report (link to the report is at the Source link), are at 1387, 444, and 53, respectively, and these numbers do not include the animals that were collected alive and either cleaned and released, or those that may have died later.

What will take a lot longer to assess is the ecological impact of the oil spill on the microbial life in the ocean and sediment. The formation and existence of microbial mats and biofilms on the ocean floor, hydrothermal vents, or living symbiotically on the surface of sea life will be dramatically changed or impaired. In addition, the rare biosphere of marine microbes that makes up the vast diversity in the ocean could be compromised signficantly. Estimates of marine microbial diversity are on the order of >20,000 microbes per liter of seawater, and likely, most of these species are not adapted to oily water.

Isolation of DNA from Oil Contaminated Soil and Water

To assist research on the impact of the oil spill on microbial diversity in soil and water from samples collected from the Gulf, MO BIO has created a webpage for researchers who wish to share best practices. A link to this page can be found at the Source link.

Long Term Impact…

A solution to stop the leaking oil is expected by the end of July. However, it will take many years of scientific research before we will truly know what impact the oil has had (and is having) on all living species in the Gulf, including us.

For a running total of the amount of oil still spilling into the Gulf and information on how you can volunteer to help, continue reading at the Source.

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