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Microbes in charge of mopping up the Gulf

Posted on behalf of Amanda Mascarelli

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The latest in the flurry of hazy messages surrounding the fate of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is published this week in Science. A team led by researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, has identified a group of oil-devouring microbes that appear to be dominant players in slurping up the enormous oily plume that, upon last report, was drifting deep underwater in the Gulf.

According to the new study, these workhorses of the order Oceanospirillales have ballooned out in large numbers and appear to be degrading oil at a steady clip without causing significant drops in oxygen – which is good news for other marine organisms. They also performed lab experiments and found that these native Gulf hydrocarbon degraders are capable of gobbling up copious quantities of oil, prompting the researchers to conclude that the microbes could play a major role in cleaning up the Gulf.

On the face of it, the new report, based on measurements taken at sea between 25 May and 2 June, doesn’t line up neatly with last week’s study in Science, which found that microbes were not breaking the oil down quickly and that the plumes could hang around for quite some time. Both studies are a snapshot in time, since they are based on two- and three-month-old samples, and researchers suspect that the plumes have changed significantly since then.

But actually, Richard Camilli, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and lead author of last week’s Science study, says that the two studies are not contradictory.

Given that researchers don’t yet agree on how much oil is still lost at sea or how long it might be there, there are still some very basic questions to answer. Researchers are flocking to sea to determine the exact whereabouts of the plume, how long the oil might stick around, what elaborate biochemical processes are at play, and how the organisms living in and around the oily soup will fare.

Image courtesy of Science/AAAS


  1. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kuwaiti terminals and tankers, 1991 Gulf War, spilled some 200-500 million gallons into the Persian Gulf. ZERO efforts were applied to ameliorate the spill, which spontaneously resolved. Visit the Persian Gulf with a bucket to sample those microbial petroleum munchers… and bloody stop whining.

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