The 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil well failure released billions of gallons of crude oil into the deep Gulf of Mexico, and, combined with chemical dispersants, this oil caused significant coral mortality. However, the mechanisms by which oil and dispersed oil impact deep marine fauna are not well understood. Here, we investigate the effects of oil and dispersed oil on a black coral common in the deep Gulf of Mexico, Leiopathes glaberrima. This coral occurs in several color morphs that show ecological and genetic differences. We hypothesized that dispersed oil would be more detrimental to coral health than oil alone and that this difference would be detectable in the gene expression response of the colonies even at sub-lethal concentrations. In two experiments, four and six colonies of red and white color morphs were exposed to oil, dispersant, and dispersed oil for a minimum of 96 hours. Visual assessment indicated that indeed dispersant and dispersed oil treatments were more damaging than oil alone, for target concentrations of 25 mg L –1 . Decline in health was observed for all treatments, independently of color morphotype, but the decline was faster in the white colonies exposed to dispersant. The responses to the treatments were also investigated by monitoring gene expression after 24 hours of sub-lethal chemical exposure. Coral gene expression differed by chemical stressor. Interestingly, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon biomarker gene, cytochrome P450, was only up-regulated in dispersed oil but not oil alone, suggesting that the dispersant increased the availability of such hydrocarbons in the tissue. The gene expression response was apparent at 24 hours when visual impacts were not (yet) detectable. The use of chemical dispersants in oil-spill remediation may cause health declines in deep-water corals and deserves further study.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Environmental Engineering
- Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Geology
- Atmospheric Science