I live on the Gulf Coast, and Vibrio vulnificus has recently made the news due to an increase in the number of reported infections. Naturally, it has people around here worried. I live in an area that was affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and many people are concerned that the oil or byproducts of the clean-up could be fueling the growth of this and other bacteria.

I know that bacterial species which are capable of metabolizing the components of crude oil exist, but are rare. I also know that Vibrio vulnificus thrives in warm salt water, and since it is a "flesh-eating" bacteria that infects shellfish, it must be capable of "eating" organic material.

I can think of several possibilities that might explain an increase in reported infections:

  1. The amount of bacteria and the number of infections is actually the same, but reports have increased due to more awareness in the public and in the medical community.
  2. Warmer water temperatures in the Gulf in recent years have led to more bacterial growth.
  3. The bacteria is capable of metabolizing crude oil, its degradation products, or one of the other cleanup chemicals (Corexit, for example).
  4. The oil spill has compromised the immune systems of the organisms that are typically V. vulnificus hosts, which has led to higher infection rates and therefore, more bacteria.

There could of course be other explanations, but these are the ones I came up with off the top of my head. I imagine that if bacterial populations actually have increased, then any of these scenarios that are possible would likely contribute something.

However, in the short amount of research I have done, I haven't been able to find any concrete data that shows whether populations have increased at all, or whether they could be affected by the oil spill.

My questions are:

  1. Are there any studies that show the population of V. vulnificus over a time period covering the BP Horizon spill (this happened in April 2010, and oil products are still washing up on beaches in small amounts)
  2. Is it possible that it could be metabolizing oil or other chemicals related to the spill?
  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia says that the strain is common in the gulf of mexico. Probably the living conditions were better in the last time so the population got much larger. $\endgroup$ – Chris Aug 5 '14 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ My educated guess is that it's a little of one and two, a lot of four and things like four(decrease in biodiversity, lack of predation, habitat disruption, etc), and probably not 3. 3 would be a big deal, because it could revolutionize oil spill cleanup technology. Worth checking to see if it's happening, though. $\endgroup$ – Resonating Aug 5 '14 at 16:31

I found these article, which show exponential increase in population of Vibrio in BP oil spill region (published in 2011 supported in 2013).$^{1,2}$

There is evidence that Vibrio representatives can metabolize oil-derived compounds $^{3,4}$. There is a sizable amount, more than 31%, where found in the Deepwater Horizon Spill.$^5$. Though the reason is still to be proved $in\ vitro$, but studies shows they can persist in the presence of oil.$^6$


[1]: High Numbers of Vibrio vulnificus in Tar Balls Collected from Oiled Areas of the North-Central Gulf of Mexico Following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

[2]: Associations and dynamics of Vibrionaceae in the environment, from the genus to the population level

[3]: West 1984, Numerical taxonomy of phenanthrene-degrading bacteria isolated from the Chesapeake Bay.

[4]: Moxley K., Schmidt S. (2010). Preliminary characterization of an estuarine, benzoate-utilizing Vibrio sp. isolated from Durban Harbour, South Africa. Curr. Res. Technol. Educ. Top. Appl. Microbiol. Microb. Biotechnol. 1249–1254

[5]: Hamdan L. J., Fulmer P. A. (2011). Effects of COREXIT® EC9500A on bacteria from a beach oiled by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Aquat. Microb. Ecol. 63, 101 10.3354/ame01482

[6]: In situ and in vitro impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ These are all good articles - thank you. I don't agree that refs 1+2 show an increase in Vibrio outside of populations within the tarballs themselves, but since I can't find anything else to support/refute that idea, I am accepting this answer. Thanks again! $\endgroup$ – thomij Aug 9 '14 at 20:02

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