Microbes ate BP oil deep-water plume: study

WASHINGTON Tue Aug 24, 2010 5:25pm EDT

This undated handout image shows microbes (C) degrading oil (upper right) in the deepwater plume from the BP oil spill in the Gulf, a study by Berkeley Lab researchers has shown. REUTERS/Hoi-Ying Holman Group/Handout

This undated handout image shows microbes (C) degrading oil (upper right) in the deepwater plume from the BP oil spill in the Gulf, a study by Berkeley Lab researchers has shown.

Credit: Reuters/Hoi-Ying Holman Group/Handout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Manhattan-sized plume of oil spewed deep into the Gulf of Mexico by BP's broken Macondo well has been consumed by a newly discovered fast-eating species of microbes, scientists reported on Tuesday.

The micro-organisms were apparently stimulated by the massive oil spill that began in April, and they degraded the hydrocarbons so efficiently that the plume is now undetectable, said Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

These so-called proteobacteria -- Hazen calls them "bugs" -- have adapted to the cold deep water where the big BP plume was observed and are able to biodegrade hydrocarbons much more quickly than expected, without significantly depleting oxygen as most known oil-depleting bacteria do.

Oxygen is essential to the survival of commercially important fish and shellfish; a seasonal low-oxygen "dead zone" forms most summers in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by farm chemical run-off that flows down the Mississippi River.

Hydrocarbons in the crude oil from the BP spill actually stimulated the new microbes' ability to degrade them in cold water, Hazen and his colleagues wrote in research published on Tuesday in the journal Science.

In part, Hazen said, this is because these new "bugs" have adjusted over millions of years to seek out any petroleum they can find at the depths where they live, which coincides with the depth of the previously observed plume, roughly 3000 feet. At that depth, water temperature is approximately 41 degrees F (5 degrees C).


Long before humans drilled for oil, natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico have put out the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill each year, Hazen said.

Another factor was the consistency of the oil that came from the Macondo wellhead: light sweet Louisiana crude, an easily digestible substance for bacteria, and it was dispersed into tiny droplets, which also makes it more biodegradable.

These latest findings may initially seem to be at odds with a study published last Thursday in Science by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which confirmed the existence of the oil plume and said micro-organisms did not seem to be biodegrading it very quickly.

However, Hazen and Rich Camilli of Woods Hole both said on Tuesday that the studies complement each other.

The Woods Hole team used an autonomous robot submarine and a mass spectrometer to detect the plume, but were forced to leave the area in late June, when Hurricane Alex threatened. At that time, they figured the plume was likely to remain for some time.

But that was before the well was capped in mid-July. Hazen said that within two weeks of the capping, the plume could not be detected, but there was a phenomenon called marine snow that indicated microbes had been feasting on hydrocarbons.

As of Tuesday, there was no sign of the plume, Hazen said.

That doesn't mean there is no oil left from the 4.9 million barrels of crude that spilled into the Gulf after the April 20 blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig. The U.S. government estimated on August 4 that 50 percent of the BP oil is gone from the Gulf and the rest is rapidly degrading.

(Editing by .....)

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Comments (8)
GA_Chris wrote:
So… should farmers in the Miss valley pay compensation to the fishermen for polluting the gulf every year with pesticides??

Aug 24, 2010 4:04pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
MadAsHell2 wrote:
Would be GREAT if this was true, and it was not an attempt at dis-information, or outright over-up. Wold be interesting to now what government agency, or corporate entity, involved Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. If it was BP, or NOAA, what was once MMS, then this more than a little suspicious!

Just been WAY too much of “don’t worry, it will be fine” or “don’t worry, the problem has already gone away, been solved, …”

Seems that the Obama administration was arm-in-arm with BP in wanting this to be a See No Evil, kind of deal.

If BP, and NOAA, and EPA, had been honest, then they might have *some* credibility left. As is, not sure they have much of that left …

Aug 24, 2010 4:21pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
RunningBear wrote:
Unknown “Miracle” Bugs!, why can they not eat the fertilizer run-off and solve our “Dead Zone” problem also. Hey, maybe even “Global Warming”, Ha!

Aug 24, 2010 4:30pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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