SACKVILLE, NB — Mount Allison University geography and environment professor Dr. Zoe Finkel is collaborating with researchers in a multi-university consortium that received $7.25 million to study the impact of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill on both the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and public health. The spill released approximately 4.1 million barrels of oil into the gulf and another 1.84 million gallons of the chemical Corexit was added to disperse the oil.

Finkel, Canada Research Chair in Marine Environmental Ecology and co-ordinator of the Environmental Science program at Mount Allison, is an expert on the physiology of phytoplankton, the microscopic photosynthetic organisms found in the surface layers of the oceans. She will be investigating how oil and the dispersant Corexit has effected the microbial communities of bacteria and phytoplankton in the Gulf of Mexico and how these communities influence the fate, distribution, and potential effects of oil in the marine ecosystem.

“I’m thrilled to be able to join this consortium to study this important environmental problem,“ says Finkel. “The consortium brings together world-class researchers and will make it possible to tackle much bigger problems than we could work on individually.”

The consortium, called ADDOMEx for the aggregation and degradation of dispersant and oil by microbial exopolymers, is led by Dr. Antonietta Quigg, professor of Marine Biology and associate Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies at Texas A&M’s Galveston campus. It includes eight investigators from six US research institutions and one Canadian institution, Mount Allison.

According to Finkel, oil released into the environment during an oil spill changes the community of microbial organisms living in the ocean, and they in turn affect the oil by dispersing, consuming, aggregating, and sinking it out of the water column. It is a complex relationship that is poorly understood.

“Chemicals added to disperse oil spills, such as Corexit, in turn affect the make-up of the microbes, their growth and their ability to break down and aggregate the oil. Phytoplankton and bacteria release sticky carbon compounds, exopolymers, that can influence the fate of oil in marine ecosystems,” says Finkel. “The research of ADDOMEx will clarify how microbial exopolymers are formed and how the fate of oil is influenced by the interactions between microbial communities, the concentration of oil and dispersant, and by environmental conditions.”

“The ultimate goal of our project is to improve society’s ability to understand, respond to, and lessen the effects of oil pollution on marine and coastal ecosystems, with an emphasis on conditions found in the Gulf of Mexico. What we learn will be applied to restore and improve the long-term environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico.”

As well as Mount Allison and Texas A&M, other collaborating institutions include the University of California, Merced, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Old Dominion University. The consortium is part of a larger group of 12 consortia funded by a $140 million grant for 2015-2017 from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, which was established by British Petroleum to fund independent research in response to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.