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Microbes may become the heroes of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by gobbling up oil more rapidly than anyone expected. Now some experts suggest we ought to artificially stimulate such microbes in stricken marshland areas to aid their cleanup.

Evidence published this week shows that deep-water microbes in the Gulf may be rapidly chewing up BP’s spilled crude. This could sway federal authorities to use petroleum-digesting microbes or fertilizer additives that can stimulate naturally occurring bacteria for future spills. Such measures were originally rejected for the BP spill.

Ralph Portier, a marine toxicologist at Louisiana State University, says the EPA approves of such measures in general, but they weren’t approved for the Gulf spill because it was thought they wouldn’t be necessary–a presumption that now appears to be correct.

Oil has disappeared from the Gulf’s surface waters since BP capped its blown-out well on August 15. Yet most of the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil are unaccounted for. Some of BP’s oil, however, has reached more than 100 miles of sensitive Gulf marsh, and may remain lodged deep within sediments for years.

Portier says cleanup authorities are following a 2001 federal position paper arguing that stimulating biodegradation was unnecessary in the Gulf ecosystem. The Gulf already harbors microbes adapted to degrading the region’s naturally occurring underwater petroleum seeps, the federal paper said.

Microbial ecologist Terry Hazen, a bioremediation expert at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, says that this reasoning is correct for dispersed oil. Hazen led a team that identified a strain of microbes rapidly breaking down oil at a depth of 1,100 meters and icy temperatures as low as 5 °C–conditions where biodegradation is expected to proceed slowly. The research appears this week in the journal Science.

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Credit: Science/AAAS

Tagged: Energy, oil, microbes, BP, pollutants, Gulf oil spill

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