When the fungi strike oil: One more way that BP’s spill is still destroying the Gulf

There have been some stories recently that really confirm some of our worst fears about the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon — about what kind of havoc would be wreaked upon the beautiful and fragile eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico by this black tide of nearly 5 million barrels of oil let loose by BP’s recklessness. By now, we’ve all seen the pictures and read some of the gut-wrenching articles about dead and dying dolphins, oiled endangered sea turtles and now eyeless shrimp, deformed crabs and diseased fish. But what about the marine life that would don’t see — the microbiology that comprises the bottom of the food chain in the Gulf — and sustains the glorious sea creatures who love there?

More than 26 months after oil began spewing from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, scientists are coming back with reports about the long-lasting impact of the massive spill on fungi and other microbes. And the news is terrible. This was reported recently in the New York Times:

A significant amount of the 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled still lies on the ocean floor, lingers in salt marshes, or is mixed into beach sand, scientists say.  Yet some other oil has been degraded by oil-digesting organisms — and a new paper in the [online] journal PLoS suggests that fungi are among them.

Holly Bik, a biologist who was then at the University of New Hampshire, sampled sand from beside the water on beaches in Alabama a little over four months after the spill.  Dr. Bik, who is now at the University of California at Davis, and her colleagues sequenced DNA extracted from the sand and then compared it with DNA in sand collected just weeks after the spill, before the beaches were heavily oiled.

Before the heavy oiling, fungi made up less than 5 percent of the microorganisms on each of the five beaches.  Months later they had gained a majority on three beaches at the expense of microscopic marine worms and other tiny creatures.

The Times article notes some intriguing phenomena, such as the fact that oil contamination seems to remain worse — after more than two years — in salt marshes, because of a lack of oil-munching microbes in those calmer waters. However, it downplays what seems to be the most important impact, which is the undoing of the delicate ecological balance that had existed in the Gulf for centuries. Other news accounts seem more pessimistic about what this means:

What’s more, those post-spill fungi seem to have an appetite for oil. “The fungal taxa that were there were previously associated with hydrocarbons,” Bik says, noting that the group of fungi sampled post-spill from the Grand Isle sites are suspected to utilize hydrocarbons and thrive in hostile, polluted conditions that appear to be intolerable for other marine fungi. [...]

While nematodes and fungi are hardly charismatic and are unlikely to turn up on the dinner table, these little-understood yet abundant organisms are nonetheless important. “They underpin the entire ecosystem,” Bik says. “If you knock out the base of the food pyramid, you’re not going to have food higher up in the food chain.” Further, they are also important for nutrient cycling and sediment stability. [...]

Is this disappointing? Yes. Is it surprising? Not really. These kind of consequences are exactly the thing you would expect to happen with so much oil spewing unchecked into the Gulf for months. What’s more disturbing, though, is the manner in which so many of our political leaders and the news media are so eager to move on and forget the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe ever happened, even as the facts in the water are telling us the nightmare is ongoing.

Just this week, it was reported that the oyster beds that make up roughly 50 percent of Louisiana’s production still haven’t come back from the 2010 spill. Experts had thought that other factors — like a river flood last year — might have affected the oysters, but they expected a strong comeback this year and that hasn’t happened.  Meanwhile, there was another study by a Smith College biologist uncovering more evidence that the lingering oil is causing lethal defects in fish:

“This oil is not gone yet. This disaster is not over. There are embryos right now that are still getting exposed to that oil,” said Michael J.F. Barresi, who, along with students at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts, conducted a study of the effects of oil residue of the type and in the concentrations that existed in the Gulf after the spill.

Make no mistake, this is a crisis that continues to unfold in slow motion, affecting the seafood that you eat and the health and livelihood of the people who live and work along the Gulf Coast. Some of the evidence is microscopic, but most of it is to big for our policy makers to keep ignoring. It is hiding in plain sight.

Check out the New York Times coverage of the spread of fungi across the Gulf at: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/14/on-the-trail-of-oil-munching-organisms/

To read another account of the environmental impacts of oil-fed fungi, go to: http://www.treehugger.com/ocean-conservation/bp-oil-spill-screwed-microbial-communities-gulf-mexico-shores.html

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