Print 28 comment(s) - last by rett448.. on Aug 30 at 3:53 PM

  (Source: Sustainable Design Update)
Certain bacteria is able to digest hydrocarbons in oil

When the Deepwater Horizon suffered a devastating explosion and ruptured an oil well on April 20 of this year, BP executives spent months trying to figure out a way to stop it, and eventually clean up the mess. What they might not have known was that something had already begun cleaning up the oil only a month after it started spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. 

The clean-up crew was a series of bacteria, like Alcanivorax, which is an oil-eating bacteria found in the ocean. This bacteria only "blooms" when oil is present, and then it feeds on chemicals found in crude oil. According to a team of scientists working on the study, there were large numbers of these types of bacteria present in the Gulf just one month after the leak began, and they had quite a feast.

Terry Hazen led a team of American scientists on an expedition to collect samples of water on two ships in the Gulf between May 25 and June 2 looking for different types of oil-eating bacteria. They found 16 types of bacteria within a deep-sea oil plume about 1,100 meters below surface.

Richard Camilli from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution recently announced that this plume had "persisted" for months after the oil leak began, insinuating that bacteria wasn't breaking down the oil plume as Hazen suggested. Also, Camilli stated that oxygen levels near the plume were stable, and if bacteria were eating the oil, these levels would fall.

Hazen argued that his team was looking directly for the bacteria themselves rather than just traces of their presence, and the results were that oxygen levels inside the plume were lower than the outside, indicating the presence of bacteria. Twice as many bacteria were found inside the plume than outside.

Of the 16 types of bacteria found, Oceanospirllales (which is a group that includes the Alcanivorax) were the most prominent. All the groups on the inside of the plume had oil-eating capabilities, breaking down hydrocarbons within the oil. These groups of bacteria were "genetically distinct" from bacteria outside of the plume, and according to Hazen, salinity, pressure, temperature or any other cause besides the oil would cause this difference.  Hence, Hazen and his team believe these bacteria were there strictly to clean up the oil. 

Now Hazen is saying that the plume has been undetectable for approximately two to three weeks now, and that it disappeared shortly after the leak was capped July 12. While the various types of bacteria found supposedly "ate" the oil, there are some components of the oil that cannot be broken down by bacteria. Only the hydrocarbons are digested by the bacteria. 

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By MozeeToby on 8/26/2010 4:20:16 PM , Rating: 3
This isn't really new news, they've been talking about these bacterial blooms since the spill began. It sounds great at first blush, the bacteria eat up the oil reasonably quickly and contamination is significantly reduced. The problem is that in digesting the oil they use up all the available oxygen in the water, creating potentially huge dead zones that can last a significantly long time. The long term effects will probably take some time to figure out and it's probably a net win to have the oil out of the water, but it is still going to do damage to the Gulf's fishing and shrimping industries, not to mention the general ecosystem, at least in the short term.

RE: News?
By ZachDontScare on 8/26/2010 4:52:55 PM , Rating: 4
There are already huge dead zones in the gulf. Thats how oil becomes oil (decomposition in an oxygen poor environment). There is no particular 'threat' to the 'ecosystem' from this bacteria. Besides, we're talking about a volume of of oil that is absolutely insignificant compared to the volume of water in the gulf. It will nave no meaningful effect.

RE: News?
By bentheman939 on 8/26/2010 6:52:02 PM , Rating: 2
These bacteria are typically found in the deep ocean where oil naturally leaks through the crust in many places. Large plumes of these bacteria in warm, shallow water is absolutely not trivial. There may be many consequences involving water oxygenation, ocean chemistry, microscopic fauna etc.

Oil does not "become oil" in the middle of the Gulf. It becomes oil under millions of tonnes of sediment under the ocean floor. I'm glad bacteria are metabolising the spill, but you should not dismiss the potential consequences either. Also, many hydrocarbon variants are not metabolized by these bacteria. In fact, alkanes are the only type that are readily broken down. Lucky thing the Gulf has Light Crude...

RE: News?
By Mitch101 on 8/27/2010 11:19:10 AM , Rating: 1
If only we had some history on the subject? Hmmmm.

20 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaskan Coastline Remains Contaminated, Residents Still Struggle for Justice

RE: News?
By Nightraptor on 8/29/2010 10:49:30 PM , Rating: 2
Have you actually talked to anyone from the part of Alaska where the Exxon Valdex occurred?? There are actually bumper stickers up there (I've seen them) that ask for another spill. I actually have met more then one fishermen when I was in Alaska that made so much money ferrying people to help clean up the spill that they retired!! Sure there are portions that aren't totally 100% clean, yet to say that residents are suffering up there only tells the story of a small minority of citizens. Many if not most are perfectly happy with the way things turned out. A good number even made out on the deal. Still you're never going to please everyone.

RE: News?
By rett448 on 8/30/2010 3:53:27 PM , Rating: 2
It’s a completely different environment. The temperatures in the gulf of Mexico are significantly warmer so chemical reactions (ie bacteria breaking up oil) occur at a faster rate.

RE: News?
By y0ssar1an on 8/26/2010 8:01:08 PM , Rating: 1
How could you possibly know that the oil and the bacteria will have no meaningful effect?! Are you a marine biologist + ecologist + microbiologist + psychic?

Please spare us your uninformed speculation.

RE: News?
By ElderTech on 8/27/2010 12:29:49 AM , Rating: 2
RE: "Large plumes of these bacteria in warm, shallow water is absolutely not trivial."

Assuming the article is correct when stating the plume is at a depth of 1100 meters, that's clearly not "warm, shallow water". The levels of oxygen decline as the depth increases, and at this intermediate depth, it's quite low initially. This is why we see strange ocean inhabitants at these and increasingly extreme depths that survive with little or no oxygen, including in extreme tempature environments such as sea floor volcanic vents. Here's a link to one of many articles on this issue:

Clearly, this specific issue isn't going to impact any fishing grounds directly, as the vast majority are at much more shallow depths. For a frame of reference, even the swordfish, which is known for it's ability to swim to substantial depths of 2000 feet (600 meters) or more, is only reaching approximately half the depth at which the plume is being reported to occur. What impact it will have is likely going to be a subject of continuing debate for some time to come, with the result possibly never definitively determined.

RE: News?
By Denigrate on 8/27/2010 9:22:33 AM , Rating: 2
Read about this days ago on Yahoo news. The big story here is that the bacteria are in fact feeding on the oil, and they are not in fact depleting the oxygen at the rate some alarmists predicted. The oxygen levels outside the plum are aprox 64% and inside the plum the oxygen levels are 59%.

Can we get some real writers for DT? I miss the previous level of writing we used to get around here. About all we get these days are lame blog posts that are days after the story breaks.

"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings

Copyright 2016 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki