Quantifying a marine ecosystem's response to a catastrophic oil spill

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex


Over 1.3 million tonnes of oil enters the sea each year from sources including oil rigs and tanker spills. Europe is particularly vulnerable to oil spills, as over half of the 20 biggest oil-shipping disasters have occurred there, including three in the UK. Recently on the 10th September the Agia Zoni oil tanker sank in the Saronic Gulf (near Athens, Greece) releasing over 2500 tonnes of fuel oil and marine gas into the marine environment. Such oil spills have severe impacts on the local marine life, tourism and fishing industry, as oil contains many different toxic hydrocarbons that can cause mass mortalities of birds, mammals, fish and shellfish.

Fortunately there are some types of bacteria that can degrade hydrocarbons to naturally clean up the marine environment. Usually these specialist bacteria grow to very large numbers after an oil spill. However, it takes many different species of bacteria working together to degrade the hundreds of different types of hydrocarbons that are present in oil, and we still know very little about how these microbial consortia develop over time during an oil spill and subsequent clean-up operations.

Oil spills can also have an impact on important microbially driven processes, such as the cycling of nitrogen. In marine environments, microorganisms convert nitrogen to different chemical forms (e.g. from ammonia to nitrite and then nitrate in a process known as nitrification), which can then be removed from the ecosystem as dinitrogen gas by denitrification. Too much nitrogen in the form of ammonia or nitrate could cause severe pollution problems, resulting in increased growth of algae, potentially triggering harmful and toxic algal blooms. Microorganisms involved in the N-cycle therefore perform vital ecosystem services, but presently we have very little understanding of how the nitrogen cycle is affected by large oil spills.

In this study we will investigate some of these important research areas. Firstly, we will monitor the effects of the oil spill and subsequent clean-up operation over a 10-month period. We will determine which microorganisms (Bacteria, Archaea, Fungi and microalgae) are affected by the oil in either a positive way (e.g. increase in abundance of oil-degrading microbes) or negative way (e.g. direct toxicity of oil or being out-competed by oil-degrading microbes). This will be achieved by extracting DNA from oil-contaminated sediments and water followed by sequencing and quantifying taxonomic marker genes. At the same timepoints, we will measure changes in hydrocarbon composition and concentration. This will allow us to determine changes in the specialist hydrocarbon-degrading microbial communities in relation to hydrocarbon availability, and improve our understanding of the indigenous microbial community to remove the oil.

We will also perform a focused analysis on N-cycling microorganisms (both nitrifying and denitrifying organisms) to determine how their abundances are affected in response to the oil spill. This will determine whether they may be any overall negative effects on the important ecosystem service that they perform.

Finally our research will quantify the effect of the oil spill on the wider marine food web by recording effects on marine animals, including invertebrates such as shellfish, as well as fish and marine mammals, to establish which species are affected by oil spills and how well their populations recover from the spill over time.

Since opportunities to study large oil spills in situ are rare, it is important for us to understand the effects of an oil spill in natural settings to enable the design of better oil remediation and management strategies for future spills and limit the damage they cause to coastal environments and marine life.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit? There are several end-user beneficiaries in both private & public sectors e.g. environmental remediation companies, spill-response companies, Water Authorities, the oil and fuel industry, biotechnology companies, particularly those with interests in development of microbes for bioremediation, shellfish and fisheries industry and local tourism. Other beneficiaries are UK national and local government, Defra, Environment Agency, Cefas, overseas governments and all policy-making bodies, including charities concerned with marine pollution (e.g. WWF, RSPB) and Local Authorities will directly benefit from the project outputs. All citizens of the UK and overseas can benefit from such research.
How will they benefit? Project outputs have the potential to enhance quality of life, health & environment as follows:
1. Understanding the fate and behaviour of oil in marine environments, the ecology of the organisms responsible for its degradation and the impact on key marine ecosystem services will help in the development of future response strategies to clean up spills and contaminated waters more effectively.
2. Data obtained will allow us to pinpoint hydrocarbon degradation bottlenecks in-situ and enable strategies for improved performance of oil-degrading communities.
3. Data from this project will provide a better understanding of the effects of oil spills on marine ecosystem services which will inform policy, enabling improved intervention and management strategies for oil spills in the future.
4. Microbial 16S rRNA gene sequences obtained and an improved knowledge of the hydrocarbon-degrading function of uncultivated bacteria will allow us to test and refine an ecological index of hydrocarbon exposure based on a better understanding of taxonomy-trait relations.
5. The fuel industry will also be beneficiaries as microbial degradation and contamination of stored fuel and pipeline souring is also a problem. Data obtained from the proposed project could be useful to those studying such environments.
6. Hydrocarbon catabolic gene expression data obtained from the archived samples (via planned future larger NERC grants) will enable researchers to quantify the actual response to an oil spill in the future. This can also be used to assess the capacity of the in situ microorganisms for hydrocarbon degradation at oil-contaminated sites elsewhere as well as assist researchers in choosing genes that are suitable for bioreporters or for engineering into strains deigned for improved biodegradation functions or biosurfactant production by microbes.
7. Protein, RNA sequence data obtained from the archived samples (via planned future larger NERC grants) can be used to identify biomarkers for a more targeted management of marine oil spills in the future.
8. Microbiome data; specifically microbial community structure, gene abundance and expression of N-cycle transformations will provide important insights into how oil spills impact on marine N-cycling. This will inform Defra's/Cefas policies on the impact of oil pollution on the environment (e.g. Nitrates Directive, Water Framework Directive).
9. Data on fate and behaviour of oil hydrocarbons in marine environments will inform EA, Defra, Cefas, Coastguard, local authorities and the oil industry on potential environmental and/or human health risk and enable improved policies for the protection of the marine environment.

Economic benefits: IP resulting from the project will benefit UK industry and enhance UK economic competitiveness. For example, any strategy that can improve bioremediation performance has the potential to also have an economic impact, both from commercialisation of products (e.g. biosurfactants, engineered strains for bioaugmentation). The project will also facilitate savings in clean up response costs and damages including the impacts on local tourism. For example, the UK Braer spill clean-up and damages and amounted to over $140 million.
Description On the 10th September 2017 the vessel Agia Zoni II sank in the Saronic Gulf, Greece, releasing an estimated 2,500 tonnes of crude oil, which heavily contaminated the coasts of Salamina and the Athens Riviera. The overall aims of this project were to quantify the efficiency of the clean-up operation, and, understand how oil-contamination affects microbial life. The findings of this project have revealed that whilst oil-contamination did not affect the overall growth of microbial life in the sediment, there was selection for specific oil-degrading microbes. In oil-contaminated sites oli-degarding microbes were observed to grow in comparison to sites where no oil was deposited. These microbes utilise the oil pollution as a source of energy to grow, subsequently also remediating the environment. Current work involves quantifying how the hydrocarbons (alkanes and PAHs the major constituents of crude oil) were both cleaned from the coastline, degraded by microbes over time, and, observing any relationships between oil-degrading microbes and the oil-degradation.
Exploitation Route The findings of this project may assist in refining future response strategies to oil-pollution, and, monitoring systems. Firstly, it will do this by measuring the oil bioremediation potential of indigenous microbial life and the overall decrease of oil-contamination over time in line with the clean up schedule. The microbial sequence data generated will improve and advance the current knowledge with regard to the hydrocarbon-degrading function of uncultivated Bacteria, subsequently allowing for testing and refinement of an ecological index relating to hydrocarbon exposure. Quantifying the degradation of these hydrocarbons in marine environments will inform environmental agencies and conversational groups, as well as the oil and fishing industries, on any potential environmental and/or human health risks and enable the refinement of current policy.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Title Hydrocarbon and microbial community data from contaminated beaches in Salamina and the Athens Riviera following the Agia Zoni II Oil Spill (2017-2018) 
Description These data were collected from surface sediments (0-5 cm) at sites located along the Athens Riviera and Salamina coastline, Greece. The sediments came from both oil-contaminated (via Agia Zoni II oil-spill) and uncontaminated sites and were first collected between September 2017 and April 2018. For sediments taken at each site, data includes hydrocarbon concentrations (alkanes and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)), absolute microbial abundance (by Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR)) of Bacteria, Archaea, and Fungi, and 16S rRNA amplicon libraries of Bacteria and Archaea. Additionally, nutrient concentrations (ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, silicate, and phosphate) were measured from seawater samples taken at the same sites. This study was conducted by the University of Essex, in partnerships with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation and Cranfield University, and funded by the National Environmental Research Council and EnvEast DTP. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes