Natural oil slicks fuel surface water microbial activities in the northern Gulf of Mexico

Ziervogel, Kai; D'souza, Nigel A.; Sweet, Julia; Yan, Beizhan; Passow, Uta

We conducted a series of roller tank incubations with surface seawater from the Green Canyon oil reservoir, northern Gulf of Mexico, amended with either a natural oil slick (GCS-oil) or pristine oil. The goal was to test whether bacterial activities of natural surface water communities facilitate the formation of oil-rich marine snow (oil snow). Although oil snow did not form during any of our experiments, we found specific bacterial metabolic responses to the addition of GCS-oil that profoundly affected carbon cycling within our 4-days incubations. Peptidase and β-glucosidase activities indicative of bacterial enzymatic hydrolysis of peptides and carbohydrates, respectively, were suppressed upon the addition of GCS-oil relative to the non-oil treatment, suggesting that ascending oil and gas initially inhibits bacterial metabolism in surface water. Biodegradation of physically dispersed GCS-oil components, indicated by the degradation of lower molecular weight n-alkanes as well as the rapid transformation of particulate oil-carbon (C: N >40) into the DOC pool, led to the production of carbohydrate- and peptide-rich degradation byproducts and bacterial metabolites such as transparent exopolymer particles (TEP). TEP formation was highest at day 4 in the presence of GCS-oil; in contrast, TEP levels in the non-oil treatment already peaked at day 2. Cell-specific enzymatic activities closely followed TEP concentrations in the presence and absence of GCS-oil. These results demonstrate that the formation of oil slicks and activities of oil-degrading bacteria result in a temporal offset of microbial cycling of organic matter, affecting food web interactions and carbon cycling in surface waters over cold seeps.

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Frontiers in Microbiology

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Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Frontiers Media
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April 18, 2016