Gaining Molecular Insights into a Huge Oil Spill

Oil spills can be devastating to marine ecosystems, affecting everything from whales to microbes. But what exactly are these effects and how can we measure them?

Ocean Genome Legacy is joining a scientific effort to address this important question. Led by Dr. Kelley Thomas, director of the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies at the University of New Hampshire, this project aims to use cutting-edge genomics to study the aftermath and lessons of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This environmental disaster, which released nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, was the largest marine oil spill in history.

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill drastically affected the Gulf of Mexico, and Dr. Kelley Thomas is collaborating with OGL to study the spill’s impacts on biodiversity. Photo credit: GoMRI.

With support from a $2.47 million research grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), Dr. Thomas and his colleagues are studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon event on some of the Gulf’s smallest but most important denizens: the tiny worms, crustaceans, and other invertebrate (spineless) creatures that live in sand and mud. Although small, these organisms vastly outnumber and outweigh all of the fish, mammals, and other more familiar large creatures in the Gulf. Their huge numbers make them critically important in nutrient cycling and in the food chains that support fisheries, wildlife, and recreation in the Gulf.

Dr. Thomas and his colleagues are sequencing hundreds of genomes and storing them in the OGL repository to explore how these different species respond to oil spills. What allows some to survive and others not? How will oil spills alter ecosystems and for how long? Dr. Thomas aims to create a set of protocols that scientists can use to monitor future oil spills and other ecological events.

By choosing to deposit these genomes in the Ocean Genome Legacy biorepository, Dr. Thomas hopes that his samples will benefit the research of others. He also says that this kind of sharing makes his own research more open and transparent. To date, more than 400 researchers from nearly 200 institutions have done the same, contributing to the OGL collections for no other reason than to help science help the world.

We congratulate Dr. Thomas on this research grant and on his and all our colleagues’ efforts to make the world a better place.

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