Natural bacteria help clean BP oil spill

By Davison Cheney, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Mar 9th, 2012 @ 10:58am



GULF OF MEXICO -- It has been some time since the oil rig catastrophe, the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, gushed millions of barrels of crude oil into the sea — long enough that people are going back in — including a famous Florida dip by the president of the United States and his daughter Sasha in the summer of 2010.

A trial that will ultimately decide the size of punitive damages that will be awarded to private sector plaintiffs began on Monday, March 5, even as British Petroleum continues to negotiate settlements in the Deepwater Horizon case. The rest of us are wondering, just where did all the oil go?

The answer may very well be, it was lunch.

A team of microbiologists have discovered that a few microbes over 3,000 feet below the sea's surface may have been dining on oil for millions of years, and might be m,aking a special snack of the recent oil spill.

“There's this unique cold-loving bacterium," said Terry Hazen, a microbiologist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California with connections to the National Laboratory for the United States Department of Energy. "They actually grow better at 5 degrees than they do at room temperature."

And they eat oil.


"There's the equivalent of two Exxon Valdez spills going into the Gulf every year from just natural seeps. And that's been going on for millions of years," Hazen stated. "… these bugs don't have much carbon down there. What they do have is oil. And so, they've adapted to it."

While some of the spilled Gulf oil may simply be diluting and spreading out beyond detection in the strong currents, that alone would not explain why a sizeable amount of errant oil has come up missing.

“It would be heartening to think that the bacteria had digested all the oil,” said Richard Camilli, an oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who has led studies published in Science.

"Effective though the bacteria are, the oil contains some components that they simply won’t be able to break down, and the sheer scale of the spill cannot be taken lightly,” Camilli said.

These bacteria didn’t just evolve in the last years or so to eat our messes.

“There's the equivalent of two Exxon Valdez spills going into the Gulf every year from just natural seeps. And that's been going on for millions of years,” Hazen stated. “… these bugs don't have much carbon down there. What they do have is oil. And so, they've adapted to it.”

And they are good at what they do. They could, in a theory calculated on a half life scale, consume half of a measurable amount of oil in several days, depending on amounts, concentrations and light crude (Horizon) versus heaver crude (Exxon Valdez, as an example of less biodegradable.)

But "gone" doesn't necessarily mean the Gulf is free of British Petroleum’s oil. Benjamin Van Mooy, also a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, points out that oil has scores of chemical constituents.

“Bacteria consume the "low hanging fruit" first, but the harder stuff takes longer to digest,” he states. And scientists who track oil say the plume may thin out in one place and then pop up in another.

With much of the new oil in the cold water gone, Hazen states, "Since they no longer have the oil, they're eating their (dead) brethren."

"Within the last few weeks we've gone back (to the original site of the spill) and can find bacteria … but do not see detectable oil," Hazen said. “The most likely reason is that the voracious bugs ate it.”



Cheney writes at davisoncheneymegadad.blogspot.com

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