Microbes Munch on Deepwater Horizon Oil


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The sun rises over the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Image by theswedish

Can microbes really help clean up oil spills?

4.9 million barrels of crude oil: that’s the estimate of how much oil spewed from the Deepwater Horizon.

The disaster was of a magnitude that was mind-boggling and depressing.

How would the sensitive ecosystems along the coast recover from the damage? Could they recover?

While the damage was profound, and ecosystems still have a long way to go, researchers from Berkeley have discovered that nature has been cleaning up the mess, bit by tiny bit.

Missing Oil: The Damage Should Have Been Worse

When an oil spill happens, the oil disperses. Some of it ends up on beaches, while some is deposited into sediments. However, scientists researching the Deepwater Horizon spill discovered that although there was oil on the surface, and oil deep below, there was a middle layer of ocean that had much less oil. The researchers wondered what was causing this sandwiched area of cleaner water – it turns out that nature had mobilized her own clean up crew.

Curious to discover what processes were at work in the oil plume, Berkeley Lab senior scientist Janet Jansson led a research team that explored the microbial ecology of the area. What they discovered was a local oil-based ecology that allowed the aquatic system to respond to the massive spill.

An oil spill can be devastating to ecosystems. Image by gerijean

Natural Oil Seeps Bred Oil-Focused Microbes

Under the ocean near the place where the Deepwater Horizon was located, much smaller amounts of oil seep from the ground.  These oil seeps are natural, and they’ve bred a whole group of organisms that live in cooperation with them. The microbes that live near natural oil seeps are tiny, short-lived, and exceptionally good at degrading oil.  Jansson told Decoded Science that “the Gulf environment is used to having oil in the environment as a substrate.” Providentially, the oil spill occurred in an environment that was uniquely prepared to assist with the cleanup process.

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