Tomorrow we receive samples once again from our collaborators with the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center. For about six years my laboratory has been studying a certain sunken ship out in Pearl Harbor - our studies have been primarily focused on characterizing the oil leaking out from several regions of the ship. Now, however, we're focused on a curious biofilm of microorganisms that covers the oil that collects on the interior ceilings - it's a white, flakey film (aka mung) that covers the oil at the oil:seawater interface. So far, we've analyzed the microbial community within the biofilm using DNA-based approaches, and what we've observed is remarkable diversity - an estimated 142 different species of microorganisms exist within the biofilm. We've detected sulfate reducers, sulfur oxidizers, organisms known to exist in our petroleum-impacted sites (deep sea vents, etc) - the diversity really is fascinating. What we are doing with this new batch of mung is to once again extract total nucleic acid from the samples, and then in collaboration with a group at the University of Oklahoma (including a former student from my lab) - we will run this extracted material in a functional gene DNA microarray that contains the 'spots' for ~26,000 microbial genes of ecological relevance (i.e., genes involved in nitrogen cycling, carbon cycling, degradation, sulfur cycling, etc). The resulting data will give us a snapshot of the genetic "potential" of this biofilm.
Our working hypothesis: The observed chemical transformation of Bunker C fuel oil leaking from certain regions of the ship is the result of degradation by microorganisms that are found in the mung.
Once this work is done, and we've followed three manuscripts through the publication process, our involvement with this ship will probably come to a close. The reason: Funding. It's funny - it's a ship that so many love, but so many others are hesitant to study because of political sensitivities. It's ashame - it's an important national memorial and is a model for studying what happens to oil in abandoned vessels (Did you know that NOAA has an Abandoned Vessels Program...and that the total number of abandoned vessels in the Atlantic is somewhere between 659 and 1090?).
Note: I've had the aerial photo in my files for awhile (I think I found it online at one of the historical sites), and I'm having trouble now tracking back the image in order to give credit to the photographer. I'll keep looking.