Oil-Eating Microbes Put Historic Shipwrecks, Marine Life at Risk

First Posted: Apr 08, 2016 10:08 AM EDT

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the flourishing microbial communities around shipwrecks significantly transformed, wreaking havoc not only to the historic vessels under the sea, but also to ocean life itself.

In February this year, leading scientists presented the results of their research during the 2016 Ocean Sciences in New Orleans. Their experiment involved metal disks exposed to oil spill-like conditions, showing that bacteria could flourish as well as speed up corrosion in the presence of oil as cited in an article on Scientific American. This potentially jeopardizes the 2,000 known shipwrecks which have been on the ocean floor over five hundred years. This also endangers the ecosystems in the region according to the scientists.

"The first time I saw a chart showing the abundance of shipwrecks along our coasts, my jaw dropped," said Jennifer Salerno, a marine microbial ecologist at George Mason University in Virginia as cited on Live Science. "You can't look at an image like that and not question whether or not they are impacting the environment in some way," she added further.

Finding oil-eating microbes in the said region is no longer astonishing considering that the Mexican Gulf encompasses an abundant natural oil leaks. For Leila Hamdan, a co-leader of the research and a marine microbial ecologist at George Mason University, what is really astonishing is the presence of a myriad of the species in the same place at the same time. Hamdan told Live Science that the chemicals present in the oil snow material let these microorganisms dominate these sediments. "It seems that the chemicals in this oil snow material allow a handful of microorganisms to dominate these sediments. Imagine a party invitation goes out to 400 people, and one-third of them show up wearing exactly the same dress," she said.

"You would wonder why and how that happened. What cue in the invitation caused them to all go choose that same outfit from their closets? It's an exciting task to find out why it happened," Hamdan added.

Above all, the scientists have urged further studies into this historic shipwreck ecosystem, which could definitely help in safeguarding and conserving the unique vessels themselves as well as the marine lives.

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