Marine ‘Oil-Eating’ Bacteria in the Canadian Arctic May Reduce Effects of Oil Spills: Study

Certain types of marine bacteria in the icy waters off the coast of Labrador, Canada, may help contain the effects of offshore oil spills in the arctic and subarctic region, a new study says. The cold-adapted microbial communities that were studied showed an ability to degrade diesel and crude oil. This was observed under certain laboratory conditions that replicated the natural habitat of these bacteria. The study comes at a time when oil production and ship traffic in Labrador waters are speculated to increase. This would also increase the likelihood of offshore oil spills in the region.

This study of oil-eating bacteria at high latitudes and cold temperatures was quite rare. According to Dr. Casey Hubert of the University of Calgary, who co-authored the study, most studies in this regard are done at lower latitudes that are also warmer. The waters along the Labrador remain cold most of the year. Therefore, temperature played an important role in this study.

For the study, the bacteria were kept in bottles that contained mud from the upper layers of the Labrador Sea seabed, artificial seawater and diesel oil or crude oil. These bottles were kept at a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius for several weeks, read the research article published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. The research was endorsed by the University of Calgary on its website.

Hubert told that oil-eating bacteria were not new to them. He added: “But it’s interesting to start learning how they would do this in arctic environments where the temperature is very low.”

The researchers received another surprise during the study. Some bacteria that did not exhibit the behavior of biodegradation before, initiated this activity.

The Labrador Coast is important to indigenous peoples who depend on these offshore waters for business and food. The region is also facing a pronounced impact of climate change. While increased offshore oil and gas activities increase the risk of oil spills, Hubert said: “Based on the study, we are optimistic that there are indeed microbial populations in the Labrador Sea that would respond.”

Natural biodegradation of diesel or crude oil through these bacterial communities is important because the manual emergency response to an oil spill in these remote areas is often cumbersome and slow. When a fraction of the oil sinks to the bottom of the sea, these bacteria can help in its biodegradation and bioremediation.

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