Concerning Crude

Jack Mouradian, a recent Master's of Science in Biology graduate, examined how different freshwater ecosystems in the Great Lakes respond to crude oil exposure. Crude oil is a fossil fuel that is extracted from the ground and serves as an essential resource in modern economies by contributing to products such as gasoline, jet fuel, asphalt, etc. When transporting crude by rail, trucks, or pipeline, there is a risk of accidental spillage which can threaten valuable freshwater ecosystems such as the Great Lakes. 

Oil spills in saltwater ecosystems have been widely studied. Researchers found that microorganisms in saltwater ecosystems have the ability to degrade and break down the harmful contaminants found in crude. Much less is known about the response of freshwater ecosystems to oil spills. Mouradian found this concerning because spills in freshwater have the potential to contaminate drinking water. As a resulthe decided to study the Great Lakes to better understand how freshwater ecosystems respond to crude oil exposure. 

Mouradian collected sediment from three distinct Great Lakes ecosystems: coastal wetland, coastal beach, and the benthic zone, which refers to the lowest level of a body of water. The samples were taken to CMU’s Biological Station on Beaver Island, exposed to synthetic crude oil for 45 days, and observed. Synthetic crude is a type of crude that results from adding in more bitumen, a form of petroleum that already exists in natural crude. This is the same type of crude oil that flows parallel to the Mackinac Bridge via pipeline.

From this study, Mouradian gained insight into the unique responses of freshwater ecosystems when exposed to synthetic crude. Each of the ecosystems responded by producing excess methane and ethane to help degrade the crude, though the level of degradation varied by sample. Mouradian’s findings provide valuable evidence confirming the crude degradation capabilities of different freshwater ecosystems in the Great Lakes.

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Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson