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Methane eating microbes to the rescue – tiny but mighty creatures from the Artic sea floor can help clean up oil spills and keep emissions out of the atmosphere

Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen.
Remotely Operated Vehicle video footage was collected by the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen and made available by the Amundsen Science program, which was supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

The GENICE Research team identified methane degrading microorganisms in Baffin Bay that could aid in oil spill response to create safer shipping and oil exploration practices. 


Increased shipping traffic increases risk of oil spills

Oil spills in the ocean are messy and can be catastrophic to the surrounding environment. As the climate changes, sea ice in the artic is melting which results in increased shipping traffic on routes between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With an increase in shipping activity, the risk of oil spills significantly increases. Oil spills can wreak havoc on surrounding habitats and environments which could have negative impacts on wildlife, pollution, and the economy.

Identifying microorganisms that could aid in oil spill response

The GENICE team, which includes researchers in a range of fields including microbiology, bioinformatics, geosciences and earth observation sciences, is conducting research in the Arctic Ocean to identify microorganisms that could aid in oil spill response plans and combat climate change through mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. An objective of the GENICE project is to use genomics to identify naturally occurring microorganisms, currently living within the artic sea, that have the potential to degrade oil, or other greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, through a process known as bioremediation. Bioremediation uses microorganisms, or other life forms, to consume and break down pollutants at a contaminated site so they are no longer harmful to the environment.

Methane-degrading microorganisms found in Baffin Bay

Working near a seep in the Scott Inlet in Baffin Bay, the team gathered samples of water using a remotely operated vehicle to explore the sea floor. Seeps are found deep on the ocean floor and are supplied by hydrocarbon reservoirs that can release oil and natural gases into the surrounding area. The chemicals released from the seeps provide an environment where certain microorganisms thrive. In turn, these microorganisms become an important food source for various other sea creatures.

The collected samples were analyzed back in the lab using genomic sequencing technology to characterize the seep communities and understand their chemical emissions. In their investigation of organisms near the seafloor of the seep, the GENICE researchers identified methane degrading microorganisms up to 5 km away from the seep. High methane levels were measured at the benthic (sea bottom) zone near the seeps, which were not present at higher seal levels. The researchers concluded that this seepage does not represent a source of green house emissions into the atmosphere and that the methane-degrading microbes, even when found in low abundance, could regulate this methane emission.

In other work, in the Arctic off the Labrador coast, the GENICE team also found different oil-eating microbes. Interestingly, this was the first time that some of these previously known bacteria were documented as oil-degrading. These findings will become an important tool for emergency preparedness for any future accidental oil spills. Oil eating microbes in the Arctic could be a promising solution for oil spill emergency response, green house gas emission mitigation, and combating climate change.

Methane-degrading microbes could create safer shipping and oil exploration practices

When it comes to responding to oil spills, policy and knowledge gaps remain for decision makers in government, industry, and Indigenous communities in these Arctic environments. Through their work, the GENICE team has used genomics to generate a wealth of science-informed knowledge on the role that naturally occurring microorganisms could play in the biodegradation of oil in Arctic marine environments which could ultimately help policy and action plans. As their work continues, their findings could enable safer shipping and energy resource access in the Canadian Arctic in addition to minimizing environmental impacts. 

This work was funded through Genome Canada’s 2015 Large Scale Applied Research Project Competition for Natural Resources and the Environment. This opportunity aimed to support applied research projects focused on using genomic approaches to address challenges of importance to Canada’s natural resources and environment sectors, including interactions between natural resources and the environment. 

Additional Resources

See news stories from University of Calgary and CTV News

Author: Vanessa Carias | Published date:  September 9, 2021, updated May 2023

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