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Marine oil snow (MOS) formation and its role in the microbial biodegradation of crude oil

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Tony Gutierrez
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Oil spills at sea are one of the most disastrous of anthropogenic pollution events. With oil exploration moving further into deeper waters (>1000 m depth), this raises concern because of the unpredictability and current lack of experience and know-how in dealing with a deep-sea spill. A distinctive feature of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill was the formation of unprecedented quantities of Marine Oil Snow (MOS). MOS of macroscopic cm-size dimensions can be described as a mucilaginous floating organic matter containing entrained crude oil within its amorphous matrix. The genesis and factors influencing its formation are not yet well resolved, but based on events from the DWH spill, MOS forms primarily in surface waters in the presence of crude oil and then rapidly sinks to the ocean floor. It has been suggested that increasing the residence time of MOS in the water column enhances the biodegradation of its entrained oil by the community of attached/associated microorganisms, thus reducing the amount of oil reaching the seabed and potentially also that would impact benthic ecosystems.

This PhD project will focus on understanding MOS formation in coastal waters of the northeast Atlantic, particularly in regions where oil exploration is prevalent such as in the North Sea. The project objectives are to: 1) to understand the role of oil-degrading microbes associated with MOS aggregates formed in different water bodies; 2) measure crude oil biodegradation rates associated with MOS; 3) determine if MOS aggregates enhance the oil biodegradation process in the marine water column.

This work is expected to provide new information on whether, like during the DWH oil spill, MOS could be formed during a major spill in the NE Atlantic, the conditions influencing this, and what role MOS plays in the oil biodegradation process. The project is in collaboration with Prof. David Paterson at the University of St. Andrews.

The PhD is fully funded (stipend and fees covered) for 3.5 years.
To be eligible to apply, you must be a EU or UK citizen.

To apply, please send the following to Dr. Tony Gutierrez ([Email Address Removed]) indicating which project you are interested in: a cover letter, an updated copy of your CV, and the names and contact details of at least two professional referees who can provide a letter of recommendation on your behalf.

Funding Notes

This PhD studentship is funded for 3.5 years.


1. Decho, A.W., Gutierrez, T. (2017) Microbial extracellular polymeric substances (EPSs) in ocean systems. Frontiers in Microbiology, 8:922. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2017.00922
2. Sałek, K., Gutierrez, T. (2016) Surface-active biopolymers from marine bacteria for potential biotechnological applications. AIMS Microbiology, 2(2): 92-107.
3. Gutierrez, T., Banat, I.M. (2015) Isolation of glycoprotein bioemulsifiers produced by marine bacteria. . In Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology Protocols, Springer Protocols Handbooks, Eds. McGenity, T.J. et al. DOI 10.1007/8623_2015_128, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.
4. Gutierrez, T., Morris, G. and Green, D.H. (2009) Yield and physicochemical properties of EPS from Halomonas sp. Strain TG39 identifies a role for protein and anionic residues (sulfate and phosphate) in emulsification of n-hexadecane. Biotechnology & Bioengineering, 103(1): 207-216.
5. Evans, L., Hennige, S.J., Willoughby, N., Adeloye, A.J., Skroblin, M., Gutierrez, T. (2017) Effect of organic carbon enrichment on the treatment efficiency of primary settled wastewater by Chlorella vulgaris. Algal Research, 24: 368-377.

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