Berkeley's Answer to Gulf Oil Spill Mystery

New microbe discovered eating oil spill in Gulf

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Biologists at UC Berkeley discovered a previously unknown type of oil-eating bacteria while studying this summer's  Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Their findings may help answer one of the mysteries of the spill: Where did all the oil go? By some account all of the oil has vanished, and it's now impossible to detect in Gulf waters.   That seems impossible when you think about the nearly five million barrels of oil that spilled.

    The Berkeley researchers credit in part the new and still unclassified species for degrading the oil much faster than anyone anticipated.

    Ever since BP's catastrophic equipment failure, BP deployed an unprecedented quantity of commercial oil dispersant near the well head.  The tiny deep-water micro-organisms called gamma-proteobacteria have been gobbling down the oil.  The little guys turned the 22-mile long toxic plume "undetectable," according to Terry C. Hazen, the chief microbiologist at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    Hazen suggested that the bacteria may have adapted over time due to periodic leaks and natural seeps of oil in the Gulf.

    The gamma-proteobacteria consumed far less oxygen than was feared, which will spare the Gulf from developing oxygen-starved "dead zones."

    The cold-loving organisms usually scrounge around on the ocean floor, nibbling at tiny oil leaks. But their numbers have exploded thanks to the oil spill, and now biologists are talking about harvesting them and deploying them at the sites of other oil leaks around the world.

    And you'll never guess who funded this particular research. It was none other than BP, which gave the project $200 million. Hazen downplayed any connection between the company and his work.  The money is part of an existing 10-year grant.