The role of microbially-mediated exopolymeric substances (EPS) in regulating Macondo oil transport in a mesocosm experiment Academic Article uri icon


  • 2018 Elsevier B.V. Large-scale exopolymeric substances (EPS) formation was observed in contaminated surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The conditions under which EPS are produced can cause variations in their physico-chemical properties, affecting the fate of the oil through either emulsification or coagulation with particles, followed by aggregation and marine oil snow (MOS) sedimentation. Here, we report results from a four-day mesocosm experiment that examined EPS production, the change in the bulk chemical composition (mainly polysaccharides and proteins), as well as the partitioning into different size fractions (suspended particulate matter (SPM), colloidal fraction, and sinking MOS). The treatments included 1) natural coastal seawater (Control), 2) a water accommodated fraction of oil (WAF), 3) a chemically-enhanced WAF with addition of oil dispersant Corexit (CEWAF), and 4) a diluted CEWAF (DCEWAF). Generally, the presence of WAF stimulated more extracellular polysaccharide production, whereas the addition of Corexit promoted more protein production. Moreover, marine aggregates changed from a terrestrial signature (higher aromaticity, lower EPS content and more uniform monosaccharide distribution) in the early stages of the experiment, to a fresher autochthonous signature (less aromatic, higher EPS content and glucose-dominated monosaccharide distribution) in the later stage of the mesocosm experiment. Corexit promoted the association between oil and proteins, assisting to emulsify the oil in colloids and SPM and delay the settling of EPS and oil (MOS) for the duration of the mesocosm. Furthermore, when oil, especially Corexit-dispersed oil, was present, extracellular polysaccharides were preferentially incorporated into sinking MOS relative to proteins, as evidenced from a lower protein-C/carbohydrate-C ratio of the sinking MOS than those of SPM and colloidal fraction in WAF, CEWAF and DCEWAF, respectively. This is in contrast to a higher protein-C/carbohydrate-C ratio in the sinking marine snow than those of SPM and colloidal fraction in the control. Likely, microbially-mediated extracellular polysaccharides are the key component that anchors the mineral ballast until the aggregates become dense enough and overcome the buoyancy added to the aggregates as a result of their association with oil/Corexit. We conclude that interactions between Corexit and EPS components regulate petroleum hydrocarbon distribution between the water column and sinking MOS.

published proceedings


altmetric score

  • 0.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Xu, C., Zhang, S., Beaver, M., Lin, P., Sun, L., Doyle, S. M., ... Santschi, P. H.

citation count

  • 24

complete list of authors

  • Xu, Chen||Zhang, Saijin||Beaver, Morgan||Lin, Peng||Sun, Luni||Doyle, Shawn M||Sylvan, Jason B||Wozniak, Andrew||Hatcher, Patrick G||Kaiser, Karl||Yan, Ge||Schwehr, Kathleen A||Lin, Youmin||Wade, Terry L||Chin, Wei-Chun||Chiu, Meng-Hsuen||Quigg, Antonietta||Santschi, Peter H

publication date

  • October 2018