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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Marine Oil Biodegradation


Crude oil has been part of the marine environment for millions of years, and microbes that use its rich source of energy and carbon are found in seawater, sediments, and shorelines from the tropics to the polar regions. Catastrophic oil spills stimulate these organisms to "bloom" in a reproducible fashion, and although oil does not provide bioavailable nitrogen, phosphorus or iron, there are enough of these nutrients in the sea that when dispersed oil droplets dilute to low concentrations these low levels are adequate for microbial growth. Most of the hydrocarbons in dispersed oil are degraded in aerobic marine waters with a half-life of days to months. In contrast, oil that reaches shorelines is likely to be too concentrated, have lower levels of nutrients, and have a far longer residence time in the environment. Oil that becomes entrained in anaerobic sediments is also likely to have a long residence time, although it too will eventually be biodegraded. Thus, data that encompass everything from the ecosystem to the molecular level are needed for understanding the complicated process of petroleum biodegradation in marine environments.

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