What We Still Don’t Know About Gulf Oil Spill

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and unleashed the largest marine oil spill in the nation’s history, we are still experiencing — yet only beginning to truly understand — its profound environmental and economic repercussions.

(From CNN / by Keith Crandall) — The immediate aftermath of the oil spill has been well documented, with declines in tourism and the seafood industry, as well as the significant destruction of wildlife in the region.

Since then, the amount of oil in the area has dissipated and communities have started to show signs of recovery. In fact, reports indicate that the Gulf of Mexico’s seafood industry, which supplies the United States with roughly 40% of its seafood, is finally starting to rebound.

However, profound challenges remain, in part because so many questions about the long-term consequences remain unanswered.

To this day, it’s still unclear where all of the oil went, exactly how much remains or whether the reappearance of wildlife is a result of adaptation or a signal that the crisis is truly abating.

One of the populations that can provide insight into these questions is the Gulf crab. Crabs play an important role in the region: Roughly 60 million pounds were fished in the Gulf in 2012, earning tens of millions in revenue.

Yet in the aftermath of the spill, changes to crustacean communities in the area were quite apparent to the naked eye. Researchers documented substantial differences in appearance, and deformities in crabs that were affected by the spill including lesions so numerous they ate through the joints, forcing limbs to fall off. These traits have affected not only the crabs’ market value but also likely their ability to survive.

While these changes in outward appearance have dissipated in the short-term, the health of these crabs could still be precarious. I have been working with colleagues at Florida International University and University of Louisiana at Lafayette to better understand what might be happening biologically inside the crab when it is exposed to oil and the dispersant used to respond to the spill.

Using the power of genomics and computational biology, we analyzed the genes of flat back mud crabs that were exposed to oil from the Macondo Prospect where the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling when it exploded or to a combination of oil and dispersant in the lab.

By studying gene expression, the process that turns information from a gene into a product that functions within a cell, we searched for indicators that might signal exposure to oil and, based on the types of changes we might see, clues as to how the crabs respond.

Read the full article here: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/21/opinions/crandall-gulf-oil-spill-unknowns/index.html

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