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Researchers find abundance of oil-eating bacteria in northeast Atlantic

A team of scientists from Heriot-Watt University has found the waters in the Faroe-Shetland Channel (FSC) are teeming with oil-eating bacteria. The FSC is a deepwater sub-Arctic region where the oil and gas industry has been active for the last 40 years.

An open-access paper on the research was published in mBio, an American Society for Microbiology journal.

Over a period of 2 years, we captured the diversity of the bacterioplankton community within distinct water masses (defined by their temperature and salinity) that have a distinct geographic origin (Atlantic or Nordic), depth, and direction of flow. We demonstrate that bacterioplankton communities were significantly different across water samples of contrasting origin and depth. Taxa of known hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria were observed at higher-than-anticipated abundances in water masses originating in the Nordic Seas, suggesting these organisms are sustained by an unconfirmed source of oil input in that region. In the event of an oil spill, our results suggest that the response of these organisms is severely hindered by the low temperatures and nutrient levels that are typical for the FSC.

—Angelova et al.

It’s still unknown if the abundance of the oil-degrading bacteria is evidence of chronic spillage, but indicates they are primed and ready to deal with blowouts or pollution from the industrial activity nearby, says Dr Tony Gutierrez from Heriot-Watt University.

Gutierrez and his team monitored the FSC’s water over two years, at different depths and locations, to establish a baseline for the microbes when there is no spill.

Overall, we detected a higher than usual abundance of these bacteria. They comprised about 15-20% of the total community of microbes, when quite often you find them at less than 1% abundance. We’re not sure why this is the case—it could be due to natural seepage of oil from the seafloor, or the release of produced waters from oil rigs.

Establishing a baseline in these waters is critical so that we can monitor the impact of future spills and the success of any clean-up efforts, as well as other issues such as ocean acidification and ocean warming.

—Tony Gutierrez

The team is planning to extend its monitoring in the Faroe-Shetland channel and hopes to better understand why these types of bacteria are in such atypically high abundance.

They also have other locations in mind for similar observatories.

Creating microbial observatories in other ocean regions at potential risk of pollution and climate change effects, such as the Arctic, is one of our goals, said Gutierrez.

The research was funded by the Royal Society, the Society for Applied Microbiology and the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS).


  • Angelina G. Angelova, Barbara Berx, Eileen Bresnan, Samantha B. Joye, Andrew Free, Tony Gutierrez (2021) “Inter- and Intra-Annual Bacterioplankton Community Patterns in a Deepwater Sub-Arctic Region: Persistent High Background Abundance of Putative Oil Degraders” mBio 12 (2) e03701-20doi: 10.1128/mBio.03701-20


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