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ERC

EcOILogy Report Summary

Project ID: 666952
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EcOILogy (Microbial life in oil)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Microbial biodegradation is a key factor influencing the quality of oil and, according to current concepts, takes place mostly at the continuous oil-water transition zone in oil reservoirs.

We recently discovered microorganisms in minuscule water droplets (1-3 µl) entrapped in oil from a natural oil seep. In EcOILogy, we propose that biodegradation of oil resources takes place in such minuscule water droplets dispersed in the oil phase which is a shift of paradigm and a new conceptional view for environmental science, -life in oil-. EcOILogy aims to explore this new world investigating the generic principles of life in oil. We will study if such droplets are a common phenomenon in degraded oil resources and how significant the respective degradation activities are. To this end, we will develop reverse stable isotope labelling as a novel method for quantifying minute microbial activities (WP 1). The droplets provide a unique test system of micro-ecosystem, all experiencing identical boundary conditions in the oil with no dispersion of microorganisms between the isolated droplets. We will study how microbial communities for oil degradation assemble in the droplets allowing for unprecedented testing of ecological theory including a new bimodal hypothesis of community assembly. To tackle the big challenge of metabolic traits in systems ecology, we will make use of metagenomics, single cell sequencing, and high resolution metabolomics to assess the functions in single water droplets (WP 2). Finally, we will study how microorganisms adapt to this extreme environment under saturated hydrocarbon concentrations by isolation and comparative genome analysis of strains and study the role of different organisms in the droplets by Raman-CLSM (WP 3).

Thus, EcOilogy opens new horizons for microbial degradation of our most important energy resources with far-reaching implications for fundamental, interdisciplinary understanding of ecological processes, bioremediation, and oil exploration.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The projekt started with two sampling campaigns to obtain pristine oil samples from a natural oil seep, the Pitch Lake in Trinidad. We sampled the samll water droplets enclosed and analysed the microorganisms. The droplets are populated with 10e6 -10e9 microorganisms per ml which is an organism density comparable to other habitats such as oil contamintated aquifers. The microorganisms are not only dispersed in the water phase but also present as a biofilm on the oil-water interface of the water droplets enclosed in oil. CLSM micrographs nicely show an inhomogeneous distribution of microcolonies on the oil phase of the droplet walls. First metagenomes of droplets have been produced with single cell sequencing techniques and reveal a divers community composed of typical microorganisms are endemic to oil reservoirs. The analysis of the metagenomes and the ecology of the microbial communities is currently under way. Some of the organisms of the droplet communities are currently cultivated for more in depth analysis of the physiological properties. Part of this analysis will be performed with Raman microscopy. Methods for analysing carbon utilization in microbial communities are currently developed. As a groundbreaking discovery we were able to develop a new method for surface enhance raman spectroscopy (SERS) which allows an easy and reproducible generation of a SERS for single microbes. This has not been achieved so far and allows for a new dimension in Raman-microscopy.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

As a groundbreaking discovery we were able to develop a new method for surface enhance raman spectroscopy (SERS) which allows an easy and reproducible generation of a SERS for single microbes. This has not been achieved so far and allows for a new dimension in Raman-microscopy. This opens wide opportunities to link the function and phylogeny of microbial communities but also beyond microbiological applications.
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