Ongoing biodegradation of Deepwater Horizon oil in beach sands: Insights from tracing petroleum carbon into microbial biomass. Academic Article uri icon


  • Heavily weathered petroleum residues from the Deepwater Horizon (DwH) disaster continue to be found on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico as oiled-sand patties. Here, we demonstrate the ongoing biodegradation of weathered Macondo Well (MW) oil residues by tracing oil-derived carbon into active microbial biomass using natural abundance radiocarbon (14C). Oiled-sand patties and non-oiled sand were collected from previously studied beaches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analyses illustrated that microbial communities present in oiled-sand patties were distinct from non-oiled sand. Depleted 14C measurements of PLFA revealed that microbes on oiled-sand patties were assimilating MW oil residues five years post-spill. In contrast, microbes in non-oiled sand assimilated recently photosynthesized carbon. These results demonstrate ongoing biodegradation of weathered oil in sand patties and the utility of 14C PLFA analysis to track the biodegradation of MW oil residues long after other indicators of biodegradation are no longer detectable.

publication date

  • January 2018