Succession of hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria in the aftermath of the deepwater horizon oil spill in the gulf of Mexico

Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Oct 1;47(19):10860-7. doi: 10.1021/es401676y. Epub 2013 Sep 19.


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill produced large subsurface plumes of dispersed oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico that stimulated growth of psychrophilic, hydrocarbon degrading bacteria. We tracked succession of plume bacteria before, during and after the 83-day spill to determine the microbial response and biodegradation potential throughout the incident. Dominant bacteria shifted substantially over time and were dependent on relative quantities of different hydrocarbon fractions. Unmitigated flow from the wellhead early in the spill resulted in the highest proportions of n-alkanes and cycloalkanes at depth and corresponded with dominance by Oceanospirillaceae and Pseudomonas. Once partial capture of oil and gas began 43 days into the spill, petroleum hydrocarbons decreased, the fraction of aromatic hydrocarbons increased, and Colwellia, Cycloclasticus, and Pseudoalteromonas increased in dominance. Enrichment of Methylomonas coincided with positive shifts in the δ(13)C values of methane in the plume and indicated significant methane oxidation occurred earlier than previously reported. Anomalous oxygen depressions persisted at plume depths for over six weeks after well shut-in and were likely caused by common marine heterotrophs associated with degradation of high-molecular-weight organic matter, including Methylophaga. Multiple hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria operated simultaneously throughout the spill, but their relative importance was controlled by changes in hydrocarbon supply.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • DNA, Bacterial / genetics
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • Hydrocarbons / analysis
  • Hydrocarbons / metabolism*
  • Petroleum Pollution*
  • Water Microbiology
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / metabolism*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical