Microbe eating spilled oil in Gulf of Mexico
The leaking well was plugged on July 15 and two weeks later government scientists said that half of the oil had gone. The new microbe was found to be breaking down oil about twice as fast as expected.
Researchers discovered the new oil-eating microbe while studying the underwater dispersion of millions of gallons which escaped after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April. It thrives in cold water in the deep sea where temperatures are around 5C (41F) and scientists said it may have adapted over time, through a process of natural selection, due to periodic leaks and natural seeps of oil in the Gulf.
When the bacteria were found to have acted on oil they consumed half of it in 1.2 to 6.1 days, giving an average of about three days. By comparison at the site of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 the average « half life » was seven days. Around 95 per cent of the bacteria in the oil plume were the new type, while outside only five per cent were.
The microbe was discovered by a team led by Terry Hazen, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. The study was reported in the journal Science. Hazen said:’What we know about the degradation rates fits with what we are seeing in the last three weeks. We’ve gone out to the sites, and we don’t find any oil, but we do find the bacteria.’ The team also found that the new microbe acts without significantly depleting oxygen in the water.