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DEEPWATER HORIZON AND THE RISE OF THE OMICS
Microbial genomics techniques came of age following the Deepwater Horizon spill, offering researchers unparalleled insights into how ecosystems respond to such environmental disasters.
Almost everywhere scientists have looked on or nearEarth’s surface—from ice-buried Antarctic lakes to arid, ultraviolet-baked deserts and ecosystems ranging from pristine to heavily polluted—they have found abundant and often highly diverse populations of microorganisms. Microorganisms, or microbes, are everywhere; they are adaptable, and they play key roles in element cycling and ecosystem functioning in nearly every environment on Earth.
Microbes are the great decomposers in ecosystems, breaking down dead and dying organic matter and recycling major nutrients for use by plants. And by reacting rapidly and adapting to changing conditions, they act as first responders in helping restore balance and stability to ecosystems after such disturbances as pollution or catastrophic storms. Microbes are, for example, intimately involved in ecosystem responses to oil spills.
Like organic matter derived from modern-day primary production, oil formed over geologic time can act as a carbon source that fuels microbial growth and metabolism. Hydrocarbon-degrading microbes have been studied for decades and are thought to be ubiquitous and diverse and to have adapted to consuming oil over millions of years [Head et al., 2006]. And biodegradation mediated by indigenous microbial communities is considered the primary fate of most petroleum (oil and gas) that enters the marine environment through natural mechanisms like seeps [Leahy and Colwell, 1990].
As researchers began unveiling the complexity of microbial communities and illuminated fundamentals of how they operate in recent decades, though, much remained unclear about their structure and functioning in nature. The reason for this was in part because of a shortage of techniques for studying them. Because of their small size, microbes evade easy observation, and most cannot be cultured in the laboratory. At the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, environmental microbiology was a relatively nascent field. But in the past decade, a variety of so-called omics techniques, focused on parsing the genetic makeup of cells, have emerged and offered researchers powerful new ways to study microbial communities and the roles played by specific groups of microbes.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest accidental oil discharge into a marine environment for which a proportional emergency response effort was mounted. In contrast to the Valdez spill, the last major spill affecting the United States before 2010, the DWH discharge occurred in deep water, with extraordinarily large volumes of chemical dispersant applied during emergency response efforts.
The DWH spill was also the first major environmental disaster for which genomics technologies had matured to such an extent that they could be deployed to quantify microbial responses over large spatial and temporal scales. As a result, the field of environmental genomics matured during the past decade in parallel with the DWH response. Technical advances in genomics enabled direct, comprehensive analyses of the microbes in their natural habitat, be it oil-contaminated or uncontaminated seawater or sediments.
EOS / To continue reading this article visit: https://eos.org/features/deepwater-horizon-and-the-rise-of-the-omics