BP oil spill disrupted microbes on Gulf Coast beaches, new research shows

Nematode worms recovered from beach sand were among the organisms tested for DNA.

Nematode worms recovered from beach sand were among the organisms tested for DNA. Photo by Holly Bik.

Originally published on NOLA.com

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune

Communities of microbial organisms – including nematode worms, single cell animals called protists, and a variety of fungi – that live in the sediment of beaches on Grand Isle, Dauphin Island and elsewhere along the Gulf of Mexico underwent dramatic changes in the months immediately following the BP oil spill, according to a new study published today in the online scientific journal PLos ONE.

The variety of organisms in beach sand that form one of the lowest links in the Gulf’s food chain dropped dramatically several months after the spill, with the remaining species believed to favor those that munch on oily hydrocarbons and are better able to survive the polluted conditions that others species found unlivable, the researchers with the University of New Hampshire’s Hubbard Center for Genome Studies and its partners found.

“We went from this very diverse community with an abundance of different organisms to this really (impoverished) community that was really dominated by a couple of fungal species,” said Holly Bik, a computational biologist and lead author of the study, who recently moved from the University of New Hampshire to the University of California at Davis.

The results were especially shocking for Dauphin Island, Bik said, because the post-spill samples were taken from what looked like a pristine beach.

“If you dug down in the sand, maybe you could find a discolored layer of oil in the beach, but there were no tarballs,” she said. “It was like a ghost town, no tourists, but if you’d been in a media blackout for the previous six months, you wouldn’t have even known there had been a spill.”

The researchers tested the beach samples for DNA, collecting 1.2 million separate DNA sequences from the different locations. The research was conducted under a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We go to the beach and take a spoonful of sand and put it in a blender and extract all the DNA from everything that’s living in there,” said Bik, who also commented on her research as it was occurring on the web at Deep Sea News

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