Competing time scales involved in rapid rising micro-droplets in comparison to substantially slower biodegradation processes at oil-water interfaces highlights a perplexing question: how do biotic processes occur and alter the fates of oil micro-droplets (<500 μm) in the 400 m thick Deepwater Horizon deep-sea plume? For instance, a 200 μm droplet traverses the plume in ~48 h, while known biodegradation processes require weeks to complete. Using a microfluidic platform allowing microcosm observations of a droplet passing through a bacterial suspension at ecologically relevant length and time scales, we discover that within minutes bacteria attach onto an oil droplet and extrude polymeric streamers that rapidly bundle into an elongated aggregate, drastically increasing drag that consequently slows droplet rising velocity. Results provide a key mechanism bridging competing scales and establish a potential pathway to biodegradation and sedimentations as well as substantially alter physical transport of droplets during a deep-sea oil spill with dispersant.
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