Oil-eating microbes ate most of the oil BP spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, according to new research by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The study discovered and sequenced the DNA of a new type of natural oil-eating bacteria. Knowing how oil-eating bacteria behave will help prevent future oil spills from doing as much damage to the environment as the BP spill.
“Our study demonstrated the importance of using dispersants in producing neutrally buoyant, tiny oil droplets, which kept much of the oil from reaching the ocean surface,” Dr. Hary Andersen, a microbial ecologist at Berkley Lab, said in a press statement. “Naturally occurring microbes at this depth are highly specialized in growing by using specific components of the oil for their food source. So the oil droplets provided a large surface area for the microbes to chew up the oil.”
The study found that dispersants broke up the oil into tiny droplets, making them less buoyant and unable to float to the surface. This meant that the oil formed a layer deep below the surface of the water, making it easier for microbes that live in the deep ocean to eat it. However, scientists weren’t able to measure the exact amount of oil eliminated by the microbes.
Due largely to these oil-eating bacteria, the Gulf of Mexico recovered from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill faster than scientists thought possible and has returned to pre-spill levels of environmental health.
Before the spill, a scientific survey of the Gulf’s environmental health gave the region 71 out of 100 points. One year after the spill, the Gulf’s score was a 68 because of the oil eating microbes. Since 2010, seafood catches from the Gulf were average compared to pre-spill years.
The incident released 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest oil spill in history that wasn’t intentional.
Some scientists aren’t happy about the oil eating microbes, that saved the Gulf in 2010, claiming they are now bad for the environment because they’re out-competing other bacteria for living space in shipwrecks.
The scientists also claim the oil-eating microbes have increased metal corrosion and could potentially speed up the degradation of steel-hulled shipwrecks. They believe that the microbes could potentially be ecologically disruptive, even though the presence of oil-eating microbes in the Gulf of Mexico is entirely natural as the region has plenty of places where oil seeps out of the seabed.
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