Using dispersants after oil spills: impacts on the composition and activity of microbial communities

Journal name:
Nature Reviews Microbiology
Year published:
Published online


Dispersants are globally and routinely applied as an emergency response to oil spills in marine ecosystems with the goal of chemically enhancing the dissolution of oil into water, which is assumed to stimulate microbially mediated oil biodegradation. However, little is known about how dispersants affect the composition of microbial communities or their biodegradation activities. The published findings are controversial, probably owing to variations in laboratory methods, the selected model organisms and the chemistry of different dispersant–oil mixtures. Here, we argue that an in-depth assessment of the impacts of dispersants on microorganisms is needed to evaluate the planning and use of dispersants during future responses to oil spills.

At a glance


  1. Dispersants and their interaction with oil in sea water.
    Figure 1: Dispersants and their interaction with oil in sea water.

    a | Surfactant molecules are composed of a hydrophilic head group and a lipophilic tail. b | When dispersants interact with oil in sea water, the hydrophilic component of the surfactant turns towards the sea water while the lipophilic side of the molecule turns towards the oil phase, leading to the formation of small oil droplets that are stabilized by the dispersant. c | As a consequence of dispersant application, oil slicks are broken up, and dispersant-stabilized oil droplets are dispersed in the water column.

  2. Hydrocarbon degradation following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
    Figure 2: Hydrocarbon degradation following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

    During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Macondo oil was released from the wellhead and partly dissolved in the water column, leading to a hydrocarbon plume at a depth of 1,000–1,300 m. Oil slicks on surface waters were treated with dispersants to break down large surface slicks. In surface seawater, a substantial amount of oil coagulated with bacterial marine oil snow and particulate organic matter, and sank down to the sediment surface — an event referred to as the oil snow blizzard. Oil components were widely transported both horizontally and vertically in the Gulf of Mexico, and elevated (above background) concentrations of hydrocarbons were measured up to hundreds of kilometres away from the source of the contamination and covered an area of approximately 20,000 km2. At the water surface, volatile hydrocarbons evaporated into the atmosphere, where transformations occurred in several ways, including atmospheric oxidation (that is, chemical reaction of hydrocarbons with hydroxyl groups, singlet oxygen or nitrogen oxides). Microorganisms in the upper ocean (pelagic) degraded dissolved hydrocarbons in the contaminated water column, introducing oil components into the pelagic food web. Grazers and viruses directly interacted with hydrocarbon degraders, and some oil was likely to have become stuck to the cells of phytoplankton and zooplankton and transferred indirectly to higher trophic levels. Persistent oil components sank to the sea floor and were buried; benthic (sediment-inhabiting) microorganisms there use them as carbon and energy sources predominantly under anoxic conditions, which generally decelerates biodegradation rates.


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  1. Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA. Present address: Center for Applied Geosciences, University of Tübingen, 72074 Tübingen, Germany.

    • Sara Kleindienst
  2. College of Marine Sciences, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA.

    • John H. Paul
  3. Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA.

    • Samantha B. Joye

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Author details

  • Sara Kleindienst

    Sara Kleindienst received her Ph.D. in microbial ecology at the University of Bremen, Germany, in 2012. During her Ph.D., she investigated hydrocarbon-degrading sulfate-reducing bacteria at marine gas and oil seeps in the group of Rudolf Amann at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen. From 2011 to 2013 she was a teaching assistant in the Microbial Diversity Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA. From 2012 to 2013, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Samantha Joye at the University of Georgia, Athens, USA, where she attended research cruises in the Gulf of Mexico and focused on the impact of dispersant and oil on pelagic microbial communities. From 2013 to 2015, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Frank Löffler at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, USA, where she studied microbial biodegradation of chlorinated solvents. In 2015, she joined the Center for Applied Geosciences in Tübingen, Germany, as leading scientist in the Geomicrobiology group of Andreas Kappler and head of the molecular ecology group. Sara Kleindienst's homepage.

  • John H. Paul

    John H. Paul received his Ph.D. from the University of Miami, Florida, USA, in 1980 and is now Distinguished University Professor in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, USA. His research interests include marine microbiology with a focus on molecular ecology, environmental virology and marine omics. The common research theme in his group is the measurement of gene expression as a means of understanding microbial-mediated processes in the oceans. This is divided into specific areas of research that include lysogeny, phytoplankton carbon fixation and the development of sensors. His group is examining the genomes of temperate marine bacteriophages to understand the control of lysogeny in heterotrophic bacteria and picocyanobacteria in the marine environment, and his studies in carbon fixation have focused on the control of this process in oceanic river plumes. Such plumes have tremendous carbon dioxide drawdown, yet also show high levels of recycled production. John H. Paul's homepage.

  • Samantha B. Joye

    Samantha B. Joye is the Athletic Association Professor of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences in the University of Georgia, Athens, USA. She is an expert in microbiology and geochemistry, and has studied the microbial geochemistry of natural hydrocarbon seeps in the Gulf of Mexico for almost two decades. Her work related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill documented the distribution of deep-water plumes of oil and gas, the consumption of methane in the water column and the impact of rapid sedimentation on benthic environments. She continues to track the activities of microorganisms that break down oil and gas and to assess the impact of the spill on blue-water benthic and pelagic ecosystems. She received her Ph.D. in marine sciences from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, in 1993 and joined the faculty of the University of Georgia in 1997, having served briefly as a postdoctoral research associate at San Francisco State University, California, USA, and an assistant professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, College Station, USA. She was awarded a sabbatical fellowship at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study in Delmenhorst, Germany, where she served as a visiting professor at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, between 2002 and 2003. Samantha B. Joye's homepage.

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