Water droplets in oil are microhabitats for microbial life

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Science  08 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6197, pp. 673-676
DOI: 10.1126/science.1252215

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Microbial life thrives in an oily bubble

Microorganisms can break down hydrocarbons in oil reservoirs. Microbes grow primarily at the interface between oil and water, where they can find nutrients and dispose of metabolites. Meckenstock et al. now show that tiny water droplets can also provide a suitable home for hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms. The authors examined oil from Pitch Lake, Trinidad and Tobago, and found that diverse microorganisms thrived in these tiny isolated microhabitats.

Science, this issue p. 673


Anaerobic microbial degradation of hydrocarbons, typically occurring at the oil-water transition zone, influences the quality of oil reservoirs. In Pitch Lake, Trinidad and Tobago—the world’s largest asphalt lake—we found that microorganisms are metabolically active in minuscule water droplets (1 to 3 microliters) entrapped in oil. Pyrotag sequencing of individual droplet microbiomes revealed complex methanogenic microbial communities actively degrading the oil into a diverse range of metabolites, as shown by nuclear magnetic resonance and Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry. High salinity and water-stable isotopes of the droplets indicate a deep subsurface origin. The 13.5% water content and the large surface area of the droplets represent an underestimated potential for biodegradation of oil away from the oil-water transition zone.

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