Bacteria are eating the oil plume in the Gulf

Where did all the oil go? The bacteria deep in the ocean will go to town on the oil and eat it up.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory collected over 200 samples from the Gulf. They looked at the same plume the Woods Hole researchers looked at (as well as other locations in the Gulf) and found that a new species of bacteria was happily gorging on the gigantic oil plume deep down in the ocean.

“We think our papers are complementary. The Woods Hole researchers weren't looking at microbial parameters and had made some assumptions about oxygen concentrations. We found a new species of bacteria that is within a group of bacteria that can degrade oil and grow at low temperatures," said Berkeley's microbial ecologist Terry Hazen.

The samples were swooped up from 17 different locations and were put through the Berkeley Lab PhyloChip. The small palm-sized DNA-based microarray can identify 50,000 species of bacteria and archaea. Bonus: no culturing of the samples were needed!

Again, the researchers found that the main bacteria in the plume was a new species, a subfamily that is associated with hydrocarbon degradation. About 90 percent were of this type of bacteria in the plume, while only 5 percent were of this bacteria outside of the plume.

The Berkeley researchers discovered that bacteria was eating up the oil a lot faster than they expected.

"Mother nature has a tremendous ability to clean herself up, especially if it's a substance that is found in the environment naturally. Oil is a biological product. It does degrade fairly easily because it's been in the environment for millions of years," Hazen said.

Microbes will take advantage of the oil because they can thrive on it for food.

The Gulf of Mexico has a lot of natural seeps. The equivalent amount of oil released in the Exxon Valdez spill seeps into the Gulf every year.

The well was capped on July 15th. "It was great for us to see how fast the plume would disappear. For the past three weeks, we haven't been able to detect oil in the deepwater plume," Hazen said.

Hazen will return to the Gulf in a few weeks to catch up with his crew that has been out there since May. (His students take turns out at sea — they rotate every two to three weeks).

"It's a great life experience for them. They are at sea and part of a research program looking at a national catastrophe. We'd like to think that we are doing something that might actually help us understand what is going on," Hazen said.

"We aren't sure of the long term effects. A lot more research will have to be done."

I asked him if he'd go swimming in the Gulf.

He said, "sure." He reasoned that with all the skimming, there's less trash than there normally is in the Gulf. "The majority of the oil is gone. It's either been burned, skimmed, or biodegraded by the bacteria."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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