Microbial production and consumption of hydrocarbons in the global ocean

Nat Microbiol. 2021 Apr;6(4):489-498. doi: 10.1038/s41564-020-00859-8. Epub 2021 Feb 1.


Seeps, spills and other oil pollution introduce hydrocarbons into the ocean. Marine cyanobacteria also produce hydrocarbons from fatty acids, but little is known about the size and turnover of this cyanobacterial hydrocarbon cycle. We report that cyanobacteria in an oligotrophic gyre mainly produce n-pentadecane and that microbial hydrocarbon production exhibits stratification and diel cycling in the sunlit surface ocean. Using chemical and isotopic tracing we find that pentadecane production mainly occurs in the lower euphotic zone. Using a multifaceted approach, we estimate that the global flux of cyanobacteria-produced pentadecane exceeds total oil input in the ocean by 100- to 500-fold. We show that rapid pentadecane consumption sustains a population of pentadecane-degrading bacteria, and possibly archaea. Our findings characterize a microbial hydrocarbon cycle in the open ocean that dwarfs oil input. We hypothesize that cyanobacterial hydrocarbon production selectively primes the ocean's microbiome with long-chain alkanes whereas degradation of other petroleum hydrocarbons is controlled by factors including proximity to petroleum seepage.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alkanes / analysis
  • Alkanes / metabolism
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Cyanobacteria / metabolism
  • Cyanobacteria / physiology
  • Hydrocarbons / analysis
  • Hydrocarbons / metabolism*
  • Microbiota
  • Oceans and Seas*
  • Petroleum / metabolism
  • Petroleum Pollution
  • Seawater / chemistry
  • Seawater / microbiology*


  • Alkanes
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Petroleum
  • pentadecane