Seas near Shetland ‘teeming’ with oil-eating bacteria which could help with spillages

Seas near Shetland are reported to be teeming with oil-eating bacteria, which scientists say could help deal with future oil spills.

An underwater observatory in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, which has a high lvel of oil and gas shipping activity, made the discovery.

Experts are unsure whether the abundance of oi-eating bacteria is evidence of chronic spillage, but say they are ready to deal with “blowouts” or pollution nearby. 

Tony Gutierrez from the Heriot-Watt University that made the discovery, said it was not known whether the abundance of oil-eating bacteria is evidence of chronic spillage, but indicated they are ready to deal with “blowouts” or pollution nearby. 

“Oil-degrading bacteria play a vital role in cleaning up oil spills – we found them strongly enriched during the Deepwater Horizon spill, for example,” Dr Gutierrez added.

“These types of microbes thrive on oil as a food source.”

The oil-eating bacteria.
The oil-eating bacteria.

Dr Gutierrez and his team monitored the Faroe-Shetland channel’s water over two years, 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 per cent of the total community of microbes, when quite often you find them at less than 1 per cent 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 cleanup efforts, as well as other issues such as ocean acidification and ocean warming.”

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, like the Arctic, is one of our goals,” said Dr Gutierrez.

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

The research was published in mBio, an American Society for Microbiology journal.


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