Marine Science Faculty Publications

Toxicity and Mutagenicity of Gulf of Mexico Waters During and After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is unparalleled among environmental hydrocarbon releases, because of the tremendous volume of oil, the additional contamination by dispersant, and the oceanic depth at which this release occurred. Here, we present data on general toxicity and mutagenicity of upper water column waters and, to a lesser degree, sediment porewater of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico (NEGOM) and west Florida shelf (WFS) at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and thereafter. During a research cruise in August 2010, analysis of water collected in the NEGOM indicated that samples of 3 of 14 (21%) stations were toxic to bacteria based on the Microtox assay, 4 of 13 (34%) were toxic to phytoplankton via the QwikLite assay, and 6 of 14 (43%) showed DNA damaging activity using the λ-Microscreen Prophage induction assay. The Microtox and Microscreen assays indicated that the degree of toxicity was correlated to total petroleum hydrocarbon concentration. Long-term monitoring of stations on the NEGOM and the WFS was undertaken by 8 and 6 cruises to these areas, respectively. Microtox toxicity was nearly totally absent by December 2010 in the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico (3 of 8 cruises with one positive station). In contrast, QwikLite toxicity assay yielded positives at each cruise, often at multiple stations or depths, indicating the greater sensitivity of the QwikLite assay to environmental factors. The Microscreen mutagenicity assays indicated that certain water column samples overlying the WFS were mutagenic at least 1.5 years after capping the Macondo well. Similarly, sediment porewater samples taken from 1000, 1200, and 1400 m from the slope off the WFS in June 2011 were also highly genotoxic. Our observations are consistent with a portion of the dispersed oil from the Macondo well area advecting to the southeast and upwelling onto the WFS, although other explanations exist. Organisms in contact with these waters might experience DNA damage that could lead to mutation and heritable alterations to the community pangenome. Such mutagenic interactions might not become apparent in higher organisms for years.

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Environmental Science & Technology, v. 47, issue 17, p. 9651-9569