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Deepwater Horizon Cleanup: Juniata Researchers Play Part in Studying Oil-Eating Microbes

(Posted July 28, 2014)

Regina Lamendella is shown on a Gulf Coast beach collecting samples in 2010. Lamendella, at right, collecting with a colleague, spent several days in Grand Isle, La., gathering samples.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Juniata College is nowhere near a beach, unless you count the college's sand-filled long jump pit, but a Juniata biology professor and her research students, working on samples of sand from beaches inundated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, have been able to piece together a puzzle on how microscopic microbes present on shorelines help break down polluting substances.

As reported recently in the academic journal "Frontiers in Microbiology," research performed by Juniata undergraduate researchers in labs about 1,240 miles from the Gulf Coast revealed that beaches affected by the oil disaster experienced an increase in the population and diversity of microbes known to consume hydrocarbons.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which was the result of a 2010 blowout on a British Petroleum oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, leaked millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, some of which washed ashore along the Gulf Coast. Scientists studying the effects of the spill in the ocean credit bacteria that consume hydrocarbons with helping to break down the oil.

"We wanted to know were there oil-hungry microbes active on the beach and did the oil spill cause blooms in specific populations within the microbial community," explains Regina Lamendella, assistant professor of biology at Juniata.

Lamendella was on the beaches of Grand Isle, La. shortly after the spill collecting oil-contaminated and uncontaminated samples. Then a postdoctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, Lamendella and other members of the team returned to California bearing hundreds of sand samples.

"We wanted to know were there oil-hungry microbes active on the beach and did the oil spill cause blooms in specific populations within the microbial community?"
Regina Lamendella, assistant professor of biology at Juniata.

Lamendella brought her samples along with her when she was hired at Juniata in 2012. She and student researchers Steven Strutt, now a graduate student at UC-Berkeley, and Christopher McLimans, a sophomore from West Grove, Pa., sought to identify microbes present in the samples that could effectively break down the different hydrocarbons in oil.

"We took the sample of sand and ground it up so we could access the genetic material to investigate individual bacterial genes," Lamendella says. "Then we looked at the genetic material of microbes that are known to 'eat' hydrocarbons and examined our samples to see if we could identify if the pieces of genetic material are expressed or 'turned on' to consume hydrocarbons."

Lamendella explains that grinding up a sample leaves millions of bits of genetic material from many different microbes strewn throughout the sample. Then the researchers looked at the samples using a Illumina high-throughput sequencer at UC-Berkeley. It was the Juniata lab's job to put together different pieces of genetic material to identify which microbes might be efficient "oil-eaters." "There were millions of these short sequences of genetic material and Steven (Strutt) had to put them together like pieces in a puzzle."

By mapping all the pieces of genetic material in the sample Lamendella and Strutt were able to show that populations of oil-hungry microbes had bloomed in abundance, but also that the diversity of microbes that can break down hydrocarbons had increased.

"We were really blown away by the diversity of organisms," Lamendella says. "It shows that nature can do a good job in taking care of man's messes. (The microbes) are not taking care of everything -- hydrocarbons can be broken down in a few days, but some require years, decades or hundreds of years to clean up."

Currently, Lamendella and her research assistant McLimans are working on sequencing the entire genome for 48 different microbes with the ability to degrade oil and hydrocarbons. To date the team has completed 12 genome sequences.

"Once the sequencing is completed we can get a complete picture of what these (oil-consuming) organisms are doing in the environment," Lamendella says. "While they can't completely clean up an oil spill on land, that can be used or stimulated in a cleanup effort."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.