Bacteria-Oil Microaggregates Are an Important Mechanism for Hydrocarbon Degradation in the Marine Water Column. Academic Article uri icon


  • Following oil spills in aquatic environments, oil-associated flocculants observed within contaminated waters ultimately lead to the sedimentation of oil as marine oil snow (MOS). To better understand the role of aggregates in hydrocarbon degradation and transport, we experimentally produced a MOS sedimentation event using Gulf of Mexico coastal waters amended with oil or oil plus dispersant. In addition to the formation of MOS, smaller micrometer-scale (10- to 150-m) microbial aggregates were observed. Visual inspection of these microaggregates revealed that they were most abundant in the oil-amended treatments and frequently associated with oil droplets, linking their formation to the presence of oil. The peak abundance of the microaggregates coincided with the maximum rates of biological hydrocarbon oxidation estimated by the mineralization of 14C-labeled hexadecane and naphthalene. To elucidate the potential of microaggregates to serve as hot spots for hydrocarbon degradation, we characterized the free-living and aggregate-associated microbial assemblages using 16S rRNA gene sequencing. The microaggregate population was found to be bacterially dominated and enriched with putative hydrocarbon-degrading taxa. Direct observation of some of these taxa using catalyzed reporter deposition fluorescence in situ hybridization confirmed their greater abundance within microaggregates relative to the surrounding seawater. Metagenomic sequencing of these bacteria-oil microaggregates (BOMAs) further supported their community's capacity to utilize a wide variety of hydrocarbon compounds. Taken together, these data highlight that BOMAs are inherent features in the biological response to oil spills and likely important hot spots for hydrocarbon oxidation in the ocean. IMPORTANCE Vast quantities of oil-associated marine snow (MOS) formed in the water column as part of the natural biological response to the Deepwater Horizon drilling accident. Despite the scale of the event, uncertainty remains about the mechanisms controlling MOS formation and its impact on the environment. In addition to MOS, we observed micrometer-scale (10- to 150-m) aggregates whose abundance coincided with maximum rates of hydrocarbon degradation and whose composition was dominated by hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria with the genetic potential to metabolize a range of these compounds. This targeted study examining the role of these bacteria-oil microaggregates in hydrocarbon degradation reveals details of this fundamental component of the biological response to oil spills, and with it, alterations to biogeochemical cycling in the ocean.

published proceedings

  • mSystems

altmetric score

  • 0.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Achberger, A. M., Doyle, S. M., Mills, M. I., Holmes, C. P., Quigg, A., & Sylvan, J. B.

citation count

  • 2

complete list of authors

  • Achberger, Amanda M||Doyle, Shawn M||Mills, Makeda I||Holmes, Charles P||Quigg, Antonietta||Sylvan, Jason B

editor list (cited editors)

  • Summers, Z. M.

publication date

  • October 2021