Mystery of the Oil Plume Solved? Microbes ate it.
What is the real story about the "missing oil"?
One study shows that most of the oil is gone, while another shows that there is still a whole lot of it in a mid-depth plume not visible from the surface. The answer might have been found in research announced today by Lawrence Berkeley Lab of the US Department of Energy. They found the plume alright, but they also found that microbial activity, spearheaded by a new and unclassified species, degrades oil much faster than anticipated. This degradation appears to take place without a significant level of oxygen depletion.
The study notes "Our findings show that the influx of oil profoundly altered the microbial community by significantly stimulating deep-sea psychrophilic (cold temperature) gamma-proteobacteria that are closely related to known petroleum-degrading microbes," says Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist with Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division and principal investigator with the Energy Biosciences Institute, who led this study. "This enrichment of psychrophilic petroleum degraders with their rapid oil biodegradation rates appears to be one of the major mechanisms behind the rapid decline of the deepwater dispersed oil plume that has been observed."
Hazen notes that "Our findings, which provide the first data ever on microbial activity from a deepwater dispersed oil plume, suggest that a great potential for intrinsic bioremediation of oil plumes exists in the deep-sea," Hazen says. "These findings also show that psychrophilic oil-degrading microbial populations and their associated microbial communities play a significant role in controlling the ultimate fates and consequences of deep-sea oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico."
There is much we don't know about nature's ability to repair itself. Can we count on microbes to save us when then next environmental crisis arises, maybe, maybe not.
Berkeley Lab researchers collected more than 200 samples from 17 deepwater sites around the damaged BP wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico between May 25 and June 2, 2010. (Image from Terry Hazen group)
For more information: http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2010/08/24/deepwater-oil-plume-microbes/