Project to study oil-degrading marine bacteria

Status: Active

Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS-Alert), site of experiments on the ability of high Arctic bacteria to degrade oil under ambient conditions.

Using a genomics-based approach, NRC researchers and their collaborators are studying microbes living in Arctic waters to determine their natural capacity for oil-degradation.


  • Address some of the practical gaps that have been identified, to help ensure that appropriate oil spill response strategies are developed and implemented - as part of the Multi-Partner Oil Spill Research Initiative (MPRI) of Canada's Oceans Protection Plan
  • Identify if some areas of the Northwest Passage are better equipped to deal with an oil spill, and others that might have a higher risk for more environmental consequences
  • Study the structure and function of natural marine bacterial communities and their response to petroleum hydrocarbons under ambient conditions (seasonally sub-zero temperatures)


  • Baseline data on oil-degrading microbial populations in geographically distinct Arctic environments


  • Conduct studies in eastern and western Canada and in the Arctic under laboratory conditions, and in the field using in situ microcosms
  • Deploy microcosms in different locations in the Arctic for different amounts of time to assess the oil biodegradation potential of the local microbial communities
  • Identify types of bacteria that respond to the presence of oil products



  • The project has identified a number of bacteria that are immediately responsive to the presence of oil products and determined that this response is not as influenced by temperature as previously believed
  • The project has determined that oil degradation in Arctic seawater at sub-zero temperatures is not only possible but is surprisingly rapid
  • The use of these experimental systems is enabling a more accurate representation of the actual oil biodegradation potential possible in the different Arctic marine environments
  • This data would be useful in identifying locations that are more vulnerable to the impacts of an oil spill  
  • Additional studies are now needed to:
    • develop more rigorous biodegradation rate data
    • evaluate the effects of treatment agents that could be added to enhance natural oil degradation capabilities

Project team

Charles W. Greer

Charles W. Greer (NRC)



Julien Tremblay

Julien Tremblay (NRC)



Lars Schreiber

Lars Schreiber (NRC)



Nathalie Fortin

Nathalie Fortin (NRC)



David Juck

David Juck (NRC)



Alberto Mazza

Alberto Mazza (NRC)



Jessica Wasserscheid

Jessica Wasserscheid (NRC)



Andrew Tam

Andrew Tam (DND)



Kenneth Lee

Kenneth Lee (DFO)



Susan Cobanli

Susan Cobanli (DFO)



Tom L. King

Tom L. King (DFO)



Brian Robinson

Brian Robinson (DFO)



Contact us

John Cigana
Director, Research and Development
Telephone: 514-496-6180