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Summary

Crude oil is a complex mixture of different hydrocarbons. While diverse bacterial communities can degrade oil, the specific roles of individual members within such communities remain unclear. To identify the key bacterial taxa involved in aerobic degradation of specific hydrocarbons, microcosm experiments were established using seawater from Stanford le Hope, Thames estuary, UK, adjacent to a major oil refinery. In all microcosms, hydrocarbon degradation was significant within 10 weeks, ranging from > 99% of low-molecular-weight alkanes (C10–C18), 41–84% of high-molecular-weight alkanes (C20–C32) and pristane, and 32–88% of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Analysis of 16S rRNA sequences from clone libraries and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) indicated that, except when incubated with fluorene, PAH-degrading communities were dominated by Cycloclasticus. Moreover, PAH-degrading communities were distinct from those in microcosms containing alkanes. Degradation of the branched alkane, pristane, was carried out almost exclusively by Alcanivorax. Bacteria related to Thalassolituus oleivorans (99–100% identity) were the dominant known alkane degraders in n-alkane (C12–C32) microcosms, while Roseobacter-related bacteria were also consistently found in these microcosms. However, in contrast to previous studies, Thalassolituus, rather than Alcanivorax, was dominant in crude oil-enriched microcosms. The communities in n-decane microcosms differed from those in microcosms supplemented with less volatile alkanes, with a phylogenetically distinct species of Thalassolituus out-competing T. oleivorans. These data suggest that the diversity and importance of the genus Thalassolituus is greater than previously established. Overall, these experiments demonstrate how degradation of different petroleum hydrocarbons is partitioned between different bacterial taxa, which together as a community can remediate petroleum hydrocarbon-impacted estuarine environments.