Enrichment of Fusobacteria in Sea Surface Oil Slicks from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Tony Gutierrez, David Berry, Andreas Teske, Michael D. Aitken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
52 Downloads (Pure)


The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill led to rapid microbial community shifts in the Gulf of Mexico, including the formation of unprecedented quantities of marine oil snow (MOS) and of a massive subsurface oil plume. The major taxa that bloomed in sea surface oil slicks during the spill included Cycloclasticus, and to a lesser extent Halomonas, Alteromonas, and Pseudoalteromonas—organisms that grow and degrade oil hydrocarbons aerobically. Here, we show that sea surface oil slicks at DWH contained obligate and facultative anaerobic taxa, including members of the obligate anaerobic phylum Fusobacteria that are commonly found in marine sediment environments. Pyrosequencing analysis revealed that Fusobacteria were strongly selected for when sea surface oil slicks were allowed to develop anaerobically. These organisms have been found in oil-contaminated sediments in the Gulf of Mexico, in deep marine oil reservoirs, and other oil-contaminated sites, suggesting they have putative hydrocarbon-degrading qualities. The occurrence and strong selection for Fusobacteria in a lab-based incubation of a sea surface oil slick sample collected during the spill suggests that these organisms may have become enriched in anaerobic zones of suspended particulates, such as MOS. Whilst the formation and rapid sinking of MOS is recognised as an important mechanism by which a proportion of the Macondo oil had been transported to the sea floor, its role in potentially transporting microorganisms, including oil-degraders, from the upper reaches of the water column to the seafloor should be considered. The presence of Fusobacteria on the sea surface—a highly oxygenated environment—is intriguing, and may be explained by the vertical upsurge of oil that provided a carrier to transport these organisms from anaerobic/micro-aerophilic zones in the oil plume or seabed to the upper reaches of the water column. We also propose that the formation of rapidly-sinking MOS may have re-transported these, and other microbial taxa, to the sediment in the Gulf of Mexico.
Original languageEnglish
Article number24
Issue number3
Early online date27 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2016


  • Biodegradation
  • Deepwater Horizon oil spill
  • Fusobacteria
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • Marine bacteria
  • Marine oil snow
  • Obligate anaerobes
  • Pyrosequencing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Virology


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