Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year 3-5 Investigator Grants (RFP-II)

Project Overview

Characterizing the Composition and Biogeochemical Behavior of Dispersants and Their Transformation Products in Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ecosystems

Principal Investigator
Mississippi State University
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Member Institutions
Duke University, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, Stony Brook University


The use of chemical dispersants is a key emergency response option available to mitigate impacts of large oil spills on sensitive coastal or surface water ecosystems and resources. Long controversial, the relative merits of dispersant use came under intense scrutiny when approximately 1.84 million gallons of Corexit® series dispersants were used during the Deepwater Horizon (DH) oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) in 2010. Despite recent and intense investigation, many questions remain concerning the hazards posed by largescale dispersant application in marine oil spills. Importantly, the transformation, fate, and transport of crude oil components released to the marine environment through accidental spills has been well studied over many years, but the fate of dispersants applied to mitigate spills of oil in the sea is largely unknown. The proposed research addresses toxicity, sorption, and occurrence in seafood of dispersant components and transformation products, questions that have not been well addressed in the past. This proposal addresses GoMRI-II Project Theme #2: “Chemical evolution and biological degradation of the petroleum/dispersant systems and subsequent interaction with coastal, open-ocean, and deepwater ecosystems”. To date there has been insufficient effort investigating microbial degradation of dispersants, their toxicity and their interaction with particulate matter. Comprehensive examination of these processes will improve the understanding of dispersant fate and potential effects in the GOM, and will help to drive development of safer and more effective dispersants which will ultimately lead to protection of the GOM ecosystem. The over-arching goals of the proposed research are to improve the knowledge base on dispersant behavior in the coastal marine environment and to increase understanding of the processes that controlled dispersant fate and biological exposure in the GOM following the DH oil spill. The tools developed and information gained from this project will be critical for more informed comparative assessments of the safety of different dispersants based on their specific ingredients. The specific aims of the research are to:

  1. Characterize the persistence of the complex mixture of components in Corexit® 9500 and a range of other surfactants that are presently used in alternative commercial formulations approved for use in the GOM, and elucidate resulting persistent degradation products; this will be conducted in aerobic incubations with GOM seawater; through coordination with the Tulane University dispersant GoMRI consortium, similar tests with more promising surfactant/dispersants developed during the project period will also be conducted.
  2. Identify toxic transformation products of dispersants produced under aerobic conditions in seawater under Aim 1; transformation products will be isolated and characterized with novel toxicity identification and evaluation (TIE) approaches on degraded dispersant mixtures.
  3. Assess the particle reactivity of dispersant components to evaluate phase partitioning that controls bioavailability and possible loss to sediment reservoirs in the GOM; sorption of dispersant chemicals, and identified transformation products (from #1 & #2) to surficial GOM sediments and suspended particles will be determined.
  4. Develop tools and evaluate the migration of potentially toxic dispersant transformation products into marine organisms used for human consumption through incorporation of results from (#1 and #2) into improved methods for determining dispersant component residues and Itransformation products in seafood from the GOM in freshly collected and archived samples.

The proposed work represents a tightly integrated collaboration between three laboratories, The State Chemical Laboratory at Mississippi State University, Duke University, and Stony Brook University. Each partner will contribute to important aspects of the research. This research team is highly complementary, bringing to bear the best expertise available to address the research goals. Key to the overall effort is the complimentary advanced analytical (e.g. HPLC-MS) capabilities and expertise at all three institutions, as well as previous experience in analysis of dispersants and surfactant components. Toxicity screening studies will help identify important dispersant components and metabolites.

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.