In this study biodegradation of hydrocarbons in thin oil films was investigated in seawater at low temperatures, 0 and 5 °C. Heterotrophic (HM) or oil-degrading (ODM) microorganisms enriched at the two temperatures showed 16S rRNA sequence similarities to several bacteria of Arctic or Antarctic origin. Biodegradation experiments were conducted with a crude mineral oil immobilized as thin films on hydrophobic Fluortex adsorbents in nutrient-enriched or sterile seawater. Chemical and respirometric analysis of hydrocarbon depletion showed that naphthalene and other small aromatic hydrocarbons (HCs) were primarily biodegraded after dissolution to the water phase, while biodegradation of larger polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and C10–C36 n-alkanes, including n-hexadecane, was associated primarily with the oil films. Biodegradation of PAH and n-alkanes was significant at both 0 and 5°C, but was decreased for several compounds at the lower temperature. n-Hexadecane biodegradation at the two temperatures was comparable at the end of the experiments, but was delayed at 0°C. Investigations of bacterial communities in seawater and on adsorbents by PCR amplification of 16S rRNA gene fragments and DGGE analysis indicated that predominant bacteria in the seawater gradually adhered to the oil-coated adsorbents during biodegradation at both temperatures. Sequence analysis of most DGGE bands aligned to members of the phyla Proteobacteria (Gammaproteobacteria) or Bacteroidetes. Most sequences from experiments at 0°C revealed affiliations to members of Arctic or Antarctic consortia, while no such homology was detected for sequences from degradation experiment run at 5°C. In conclusion, marine microbial communities from cold seawater have potentials for oil film HC degradation at temperatures ≤5°C, and psychrotrophic or psychrophilic bacteria may play an important role during oil HC biodegradation in seawater close to freezing point.
Keywords: biotransformation - hydrocarbons - low temperatures - microbial communities - mineralization - petroleum - seawater