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Tiny bacteria helped clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, study shows

9 Apr

574629_4486054703511_86236871_nBeing a Pensacola native and growing up swimming and surfing in the Gulf of Mexico,  any time I read the words “oil spill,” “deepwater horizon,” or “BP,” I cringe and think of the day when I found a tar ball on my surfboard. And, until I got a new car about a week ago I proudly sported a bumper sticker reading, “BP lies, the Gulf dies.”

At the same time, the constant media reports about the poor health of the water and beaches seriously hurt the tourism economy that these communities thrive on. Even though the locals still went swimming after the event, the tourists that normally lined the beaches were scarce. I saw the effects first hand when my older brother, who works at a seafood restaurant — that relies on shrimp and oysters from the gulf–had his hours cut in half.

So what happened to all of the oil? There were cleanup efforts. There was speculation that most of the oil sank to the bottom, which is often connected to the reports of dolphins and other various marine life washing ashore dead.

But, a new study found that the Gulf of Mexico was actually more resilient to the oil spill than previously thought, thanks to microscopic bacteria that feed on crude oil.

Terry C. Hazen, Ph.D., and an expert bioremediation at the University of Tennessee presented his findings at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“The Deepwater Horizon oil provided a new source of nutrients in the deepest waters,” Hazen said. “With more food present in the water, there was a population explosion among those bacteria already adapted to using oil as a food source. It was surprising how fast they consumed the oil. In some locations, it took only one day for them to reduce a gallon of oil to a half gallon. In others, the half-life for a given quantity of spilled oil was 6 days. This data suggests that a great potential for intrinsic bioremediation of oil plumes exists in the deep sea and other environs in the Gulf of Mexico.”

In order to identify these bacteria, Hazen and his team used a new approach called “ecogenomics.” This approach uses genetic,  DNA and protein analysis to get a more precise picture of the characteristics of the organisms. In the past, scientists would simply grow the bacteria in petri dishes and examine them with a microscope.

Hazen said that these kinds of oil-eating bacteria are common in the Gulf due to the abundance of food. According to a report by the National Research Council, the Gulf is littered with more than 600 areas–similar to underwater springs–that ooze out oil beneath rocks, accounting for the release of about 560,000-1.4 million barrels of oil annually.

“The bottom line from this research may be that the Gulf of Mexico is more resilient and better able to recover from oil spills than anyone thought,” Hazen said. “It shows that we may not need the kinds of heroic measures proposed after the Deepwater Horizon spill, like adding nutrients to speed up the growth of bacteria that breakdown oil, or using genetically engineered bacteria. The Gulf has a broad base of natural bacteria, and they respond to the presence of oil by multiplying quite rapidly.”