Response of natural phytoplankton communities exposed to crude oil and chemical dispersants during a mesocosm experiment. Academic Article uri icon


  • During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the chemical dispersant Corexit was applied over vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Marine phytoplankton play a key role in aggregate formation through the production of extracellular polymeric materials (EPS), an important step in the biological carbon pump. This study examined the impacts of oil and dispersants on the composition and physiology of natural marine phytoplankton communities from the Gulf of Mexico during a 72-hour mesocosm experiment and consequences to carbon export. The communities were treated using the water accommodated fraction (WAF) of oil, which was produced by adding Macondo surrogate oil to natural seawater and mixed for 24h in the dark. A chemically enhanced WAF (CEWAF) was made in a similar manner, but using a mixture of oil and the dispersant Corexit in a 20:1 ratio as well as a diluted CEWAF (DCEWAF). Phytoplankton communities exposed to WAF showed no significant changes in PSII quantum yield (Fv/Fm) or electron transfer rates (ETRmax) compared to Control communities. In contrast, both Fv/Fm and ETRmax declined rapidly in communities treated with either CEWAF or DCEWAF. Analysis of other photophysiological parameters showed that photosystem II (PSII) antenna size and PSII connectivity factor were not altered by exposure to DCEWAF, suggesting that processes downstream of PSII were affected. The eukaryote community composition in each experimental tank was characterized at the end of the 72h exposure time using 18S rRNA sequencing. Diatoms dominated the communities in both the control and WAF treatments (52 and 56% relative abundance respectively), while in CEWAF and DCEWAF treatments were dominated by heterotrophic Euglenozoa (51 and 84% respectively). Diatoms made up the largest relative contribution to the autotrophic eukaryote community in all treatments. EPS concentration was four times higher in CEWAF tanks compared to other treatments. Changes in particle size distributions (a proxy for aggregates) over time indicated that a higher degree of particle aggregation occurred in both the CEWAF and DCEWAF treatments than the WAF or Controls. Our results demonstrate that chemically dispersed oil has more negative impacts on photophysiology, phytoplankton community structure and aggregation dynamics than oil alone, with potential implications for export processes that affect the distribution and turnover of carbon and oil in the water column.

published proceedings

  • Aquat Toxicol

altmetric score

  • 2.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Bretherton, L., Kamalanathan, M., Genzer, J., Hillhouse, J., Setta, S., Liang, Y., ... Quigg, A.

citation count

  • 24

complete list of authors

  • Bretherton, Laura||Kamalanathan, Manoj||Genzer, Jennifer||Hillhouse, Jessica||Setta, Samantha||Liang, Yue||Brown, Chris M||Xu, Chen||Sweet, Julia||Passow, Uta||Finkel, Zoe V||Irwin, Andrew J||Santschi, Peter H||Quigg, Antonietta

publication date

  • January 2019