International Microbiology, Vol 5, No 4 (2002)

Bioremediation of oil by marine microbial mats

Yehuda Cohen


Cyanobacterial mats developing in oil-contaminated sabkhas along the African coasts of the Gulf of Suez and in the pristine Solar Lake, Sinai, were collected for laboratory studies. Samples of both mats showed efficient degradation of crude oil in the light, followed by development of an intense bloom of Phormidium spp. and Oscillatoria spp. Isolated cyanobacterial strains, however, did not degrade crude oil in axenic cultures. Strains of sulfate-reducing bacteria and aerobic heterotrophs were capable of degrading model compounds of aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons. Results indicate that degradation of oil was done primarily by aerobic heterotrophic bacteria. The oxygenic photosynthesis of oil-insensitive cyanobacteria supplied the molecular oxygen for the efficient aerobic metabolism of organisms, such as Marinobacter sp. The diurnal shifts in environmental conditions at the mat surface, from highly oxic conditions in the light to anaerobic sulfide-rich habitat in the dark, may allow the combined aerobic and anaerobic degradation of crude oil at the mat surface. Hence, coastal cyanobacterial mats may be used for the degradation of coastline oil spills. Oxygen microelectrodes detected a significant inhibition of photosynthetic activity subsequent to oil addition. This prevailed for a few hours and then rapidly recovered. In addition, shifts in bacterial community structure following exposure to oil were determined by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis of PCR-amplified fractions of 16S rRNA from eubacteria, cyanobacteria and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Since the mats used for the present study were obtained from oil-contaminated environments, they were believed to be preequilibrated for petroleum remediation. The mesocosm system at Eilat provided a unique opportunity to study petroleum degradation by mats formed under different salinities (up to 21%). These mats, dominated by cyanobacteria, can serve as close analogues to the sabkhas contaminated during the Gulf War in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

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