CMU researchers study freshwater oil spill solution

Jul 17, 2019

Researchers from Central Michigan University are working on Beaver Island to find ways to protect the Great Lakes from an oil spill by improving the appetites of microbes

Enbridge’s Line 5 spans 645 miles of the Great Lakes region to transport oil to areas in Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada.

If Line 5 leaks in the straits of Mackinac it could affect all kinds of  ecosystems in and around lakes Michigan and Huron. CMU researchers are spending their summer looking at a new line of defense to protect the Great Lakes ecology.


Director of the Beaver Island Biological Station and biology professor, Don Uzarski, explained how the local ecology could help defend the Great Lakes from an oil spill. 

Student Nathan Dorn works with Don Uzarski to collect samples on Beaver Island Shore
Credit Sara Byks

“There are microbes associated with all these sediments that we are standing on. If we had an oil spill, it is essentially going to accumulate right here and the microbes are going to help us get rid of the oil, to decompose that hydrocarbons .” Uzarski said.


Microbes are tiny organisms, too small to see. And it turns out, they have an appetite for hydrocarbons, which is a main component found in oil. 


Researchers are trying to figure out how to create a nutrient rich broth to jumpstart the microbes into eating oil quickly. Other experiments have used microbes to combat oil spills, but most of the research was done in saltwater.


Don Uzarski shows students, Jamaal Jacobs and Nathan Dorn, a water sample containing microbes.
Credit Sara Byks

  “But there is very little research done for freshwater ecosystems.” Uzarski said. “ Then we are even taking it a step farther in the freshwater ecosystems because none have ever looked at and addressed the different habitat types and the ecology in the ecosystem itself.” 


Uzarski said other coastal universities have studied microbes and used them to clean up oil near the Gulf of Mexico, but there is limited research on freshwater areas like the Great Lakes. 


The Great Lakes present a new challenge for researchers because there are so many ecosystems. 


“So we are sampling beach habitat, we are sampling coastal wetland habitat, we are sampling deepwater bottom sediments, and we are sampling  mid-depth water samples.” Uzarski said. “Because each of those habitat types has its own microbial community associated with it, the bacteria and fungi are specific to those different types of habitats.” 


Uzarski took a group of student researchers along the coast of Beaver Island to teach them how to collect soil and water samples. 


He explained how the collected samples will be used in the lab. 


“So essentially we are recreating this habitat but recreating it in a controlled container. Then we got the actual oil that runs through the pipeline that goes through the Straits from Enbridge. They sent it to us. And then we are going to spike each one with that oil.”


Uzarski said the soil and water samples are put into machines called mesocosms. The devices replicate conditions in Lake Michigan and the straits of Mackinac. 


Over the course of the next few months, the research team will see how an oil spill could impact the surrounding areas. 


They’ll see how oil behaves in freshwater ecosystems, and - hopefully - find the right combination of nutrients to speed up the microbes eating process. 

(left to right) Student researchers Nathan Dorn, Jamaal Jacobs, Professor Don Uzarski, Student researchers Madelina Marquez, and Isabel Schaal.
Credit Sara Byks


“The bacteria and fungi will actually breakdown those hydrocarbons, essentially use it as food. And we are then taking it to the next step and learning how we can manipulate the environment by adding specific nutrients to that system.” Uzarski said. 


The goal of this whole project is to find out how to make the microbes hungry… to get them to eat quicker to help in oil clean-up. 


Think of microbes like a child who is picking at their plate during dinner. The child may pick at the veggies slowly until they disappear from the plate. But if the veggies are mixed with something else (like melted cheese) the kid might eat them quicker.


The researchers are like chefs trying to add the right ingredients to a nutrient broth that would be served with the oil. 


Uzarski pointed along the shore line and out towards the middle of Lake Michigan, and explained how a nutrient broth could help the microbial community. 


“If there was an oil spill we could go out there spraying this stuff and really jumpstart that community that would break down that oil.” 


If a spill were to happen in the Great Lakes, Uzarski said the oil will go three places: it will collect on the surface of the water, in the mid-depths of the lakes, and some will sink to the bottom. 


Right now there isn’t a lot of research on the best response to a freshwater oil spill. Uzarski said the “first response is going to be to contain what you can and it is usually burned off.”


Uzarski said this study will be one step to creating a more meaningful approach to deal with an oil spill in the Great Lakes. 


Don Uzarski and student researchers practice collecting core samples.
Credit Sara Byks

  “Hopefully it never happens and we never have to worry about it, but if it does happen we don’t want to be thinking ‘if only we had studied this component and knew how it was going to respond and how we could minimize the damage.”


Uzarski said they will be testing microbes in different freshwater ecosystems throughout the summer and into the fall. He says the study will end September 28. 


Uzarski said the research completed on Beaver Island could help find a solution to protect ecosystems throughout the Great Lakes region that could be affected by an oil spill.