ARCTICOIL – University of Copenhagen

Arctic oil spills: Can microorganisms degrade crude oil in the Arctic marine environment?

Arctic oil spills

Drilling for oil in the Arctic may lead to oil spills. With drillings at great depths in the seabed, down to 1000 m, there is a risk that spills could occur in the form of deep sea spills such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Mexican Gulf in 2010. In deep sea spills biological degradation is the key process for removal of oil, however, the inherent potential for biodegradation in the Arctic marine environment is largely unknown.

Biodegradation potential and adaptation

In order to better understand the consequences of deep sea oil spills in the Arctic, we will collect samples from the Greenlandic marine environment and set up microcosm experiments where we track the development in biodegradation of crude oil with time. We will test the effect of depth and addition of dispersing agent, which was the response in the Deepwater Horizon accident. Hydrocarbon fingerprinting will be performed by gas-chromatography mass-spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis and most probable number (MPN) enumerations will be performed with 14C labeled compounds to examine specific degrader organisms. To investigate the effect of adaptation an identical microcosm experiment will be performed with water samples from the Mexican Gulf, where microorganisms are thought to be adapted to oil biodegradation due to oil seeps. 

Formation of toxic metabolites

While biodegradation is the key factor for removal of oil from the environment, biodegradation is also the process which may form toxic metabolites. We will investigate the formation of polar metabolites with a specific focus on metabolites of alkylated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (alkylated PAHs). The alkylated PAHs are known to form polar metabolites that may have a toxic effect in the environment. Here we will compare the potential for formation of polar oil metabolites in the water columns of the Arctic and the Mexican Gulf and relate the chemical metabolite profiles to ecotoxicological endpoints.

Funding: University of Copenhagen, 1.10.2013-30.9.2016

Affiliations: Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Geochemical Department, Anders R. Johnsen,

Project leader: Jan H. Christensen