Piero Gardinali, Florida International University – Simulating the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Lab

It turns out you can simulate an oil spill in the lab.

Piero Gardinali, professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Florida International University, describes how this was done and what was learned.

Piero Gardinali is the director of the Southeast Environmental Research Center within Florida International University’s Institute of Water and Environment, dedicated to addressing water and environmental issues impacting the planet. Gardinali studies the chemistry of the oceans and its creatures. His research interests include the transport of organic pollutants in marine ecosystems, the analytical chemistry of legacy and emerging organic contaminants, and the biological markers of chemical exposure.

Simulating the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Lab


The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the largest oil spills in history — and one of the most studied.

At least 1,300 miles of shoreline were affected by the oil — that’s more than the distance of taking a drive from New Orleans to New York City.

But studying what happened to the oil deep below the surface and in such a large area is challenging.

Could the spill and its impact be replicated in the lab?

Our team of researchers did just that.

We were the first to best simulate the conditions of the aftermath of the spill in a controlled laboratory environment.

This allowed us to understand just how the oil-degrading bacteria from the original spill region behaved and how they chewed up the crude oil.

Our study shows that microorganisms are prepared to respond to oil spills.

They can largely biodegrade crude oil components left behind after a spill.

A microorganism will biodegrade, or eat, oil components that would otherwise harm the ocean ecosystem, including species living in it. 

We now know that microbial communities act as a “natural defense system” for our ocean environments, allowing them to react during spills — even unprecedented ones like the Deepwater Horizon.

As drilling continues in the search for oil beneath our oceans, it is important to understand how nature behaves and use this information to find solutions to any potential accidents these activities may cause.

By better understanding how microorganisms biodegrade oil, we can better understand what is happening beneath the surface of the sea and be prepared to mitigate impacts.


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