Oil, YUM!

Bacteria Illustration

Bacteria Illustration

Original Image

So, where did all that BP oil go? Looks like the bugs ate it… And not just the known oil eating bacteria, a previously unknown bacteria has been found at depth that is rapidly eating the stuff and doing it without depleting the oxygen levels.

If I might indulge in a bit of speculation: Big things eat little things. Bacteria are little things. Something bigger is going to eat them. And something even bigger is going to eat that thing. Expect a giant surge in gulf fishing in about 1 to 2 years. You don’t pump a few billion gallons of fertilizer into a place without something growing mighty big…

From here:


An intensive study by scientists with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) 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. “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.”

So an oil spill in deep water is rather like a yogurt culture. Pretty soon you have a microbial bloom and all the oil gets eaten. Nice. And there is a whole ecology of bugs joining the feast. (I’ve bolded a few bits in the quotes).

Analysis by Hazen and his colleagues of microbial genes in the dispersed oil plume revealed a variety of hydrocarbon-degraders, some of which were strongly correlated with the concentration changes of various oil contaminants. Analysis of changes in the oil composition as the plume extended from the wellhead pointed to faster than expected biodegradation rates with the half-life of alkanes ranging from 1.2 to 6.1 days.

With about a 3 day average half life, that is one heck of a quick process.

The results of this research were reported in the journal Science (August 26, 2010 on-line) in a paper titled “Deep-sea oil plume enriches Indigenous oil-degrading bacteria.”

Don’t have a link to the original. If anyone finds a link, feel free to post it.

And they did it with some really cool tech:

Results in the Science paper are based on the analysis of more than 200 samples collected from 17 deepwater sites between May 25 and June 2, 2010. Sample analysis was boosted by the use of the latest edition of the award-winning Berkeley Lab PhyloChip – a unique credit card-sized DNA-based microarray that can be used to quickly, accurately and comprehensively detect the presence of up to 50,000 different species of bacteria and archaea in a single sample from any environmental source, without the need of culturing. Use of the Phylochip enabled Hazen and his colleagues to determine that the dominant microbe in the oil plume is a new species, closely related to members of Oceanospirillales family, particularly Oleispirea antarctica and Oceaniserpentilla haliotis.

I would point out that one of those species has a name implying it lives in the very cold parts of the earth. “Antarctica”… It’s gram negative (the picture at the top is a typical gram positive, but was easy to get for illustration only ;-) Abstract of details on “Antarctica” at a technical level here:


Oddly, the other one was isolated from an abalone. Wonder what it was doing there…


A less technical and more ‘newsy’ piece about the new bacteria, but with a cool picture, is at:



About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Science Bits and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Oil, YUM!

  1. crosspatch says:

    Considering that it is estimated that one to two “Exxon Valdez” tanker loads of crude naturally seep into the Gulf every year and have been for millennia, and that the beaches of the Gulf are not constantly covered with oil, it would be a natural conclusion that something has evolved to use that energy as a nutrient and is eating it.

    They probably drift around the ocean, possibly eating some oil from a decaying fish carcass from time time when they come into contact with it and feast on crude and explode in population when they contact a seep and drift along with the oil.

    I wonder if they could increase in population fast enough to actually keep oil submerged by surrounding it with a mass of microbes eating its way to the center of the plume.

    The one question I have in my mind, though, is how they would metabolize the oil without consuming oxygen. In order to use the oil as an energy source, it would have to oxidize it. How they might manage to oxidize the oil without reducing the oxygen content of the surrounding water seems baffling to me at the moment.

  2. Verity Jones says:


    it seems appropriate to bring up an acronym long remembered from university days:

    OILRIG – “Oxidation Is Loss of electrons, Reduction Is Gain of electrons.

    If we view degradation as “splitting” molecules or “taking away” bits of them this can be done by oxidative or reductive processes (by bacteria in this case).

    Nitrate can be an ‘oxygen donor’ for bacterial processes, so all that excess fertilizer being washed down the Mississippi can be good for something in the gulf.

  3. oldtimer says:

    This reminds me of the Hilaire Belloc poem “The Microbe”.

    The Microbe is so very small
    You cannot make him out at all,
    But many sanguine people hope
    To see him through a microscope.
    His jointed tongue that lies beneath
    A hundred curious rows of teeth;
    His seven tufted tails with lots
    Of lovely pink and purple spots,
    On each of which a pattern stands
    Composed of forty separate bands;
    His eyebrows of a tender green;
    All these have never yet been seen –
    But Scientists, who ought to know,
    Assure us that they must be so…
    Oh! let us never, never, doubt
    What nobody is sure about!

  4. Tregonsee says:

    This reminds me of some stories about the creation of artificial bacteria to consume oil. Usually the bacteria through mutation or accident get into the environment and start consuming petroleum products such as tires, roads, plastic, etc. It doesn’t end well.

  5. j ferguson says:

    Does it occur to anyone else that the presence of these little guys makes the Gulf exactly the place to drill?

    I wonder if Bryan Williams (NBC Nightly News) will ever make the connection between his relentless calamity mongering and the reluctance of of the usual suspects to line up at the beach watering holes.

    It could have been much worse, I suppose.

  6. Titan28 says:

    The older I get the more vexed I am about how difficult it is to get at the truth–of anything.

    EM, I believe what you recount here is the truth, or at the very least part of it. Not so long ago a story hit the front page of the Times about how planes flying over the Gulf found no trace of oil. Piece went on from there to discuss the role that microbes play, and that the little critters had eaten as much as 60% of the spilled oil.

    I went outside and lit up a cigar.

    Then last week several academics weighed in on the front page, in a new story, a corrective of sorts, saying, not so fast! That oil is still there, or most of it is. And it will be there until all of us are dead!

    After Climategate and all the nonsense going on in the CAGW community, my tendency here is to put what these university guys say into a category called: get the grant money/stop at nothing. There must be millions of tax dollars out there waiting to be claimed by researchers who will study this spill until they are forced to retire. What we might have, then, is a new “special interest,” the oil spill equivalent of researchers living off climate change.

    Anyway, this is great news, EM.

  7. E.M.Smith says:

    I find it fascinating that the Powers That Be don’t understand the connection between their fear mongering, their ‘Tax until bloodless’, their ‘spend all national wealth and then some’, and the complete and utter stagnation of the economy.

    I would remind folks of the article comparing Macedonia tax rates to California. Macedonia is a fair business partner in their deal. California is a crazed drug addict who hates you and is bashing your windshield with a tire iron to steal the radio.


    So between “Tax beating will continue until morale improves” and “we’re all doomed DOOMED I say”, is it any wonder folks are just packing it in and “sheltering in place”, hording what cash and wealth they can?

    I’m not putting any money into the California (or USA for that matter) economy if I can at all avoid it. It’s just tossing raw meat in front of a pack of wolves.

  8. Pascvaks says:

    FDR took all the gold in the country (all he could) during the last Depression, I guess the current Administration is going to bust down all our doors and take everything else of value.

    (When Rome is ablaze, what else is there to do but fiddle away the hours?)

    Well, at least (unlike Global Warming?), we didn’t know all that there was to know about microbes. Maybe we really don’t know everything after all. Maybe? Maybe there’s hope after all? Maybe we won’t have to crowd together at the edge of the cliff and jump into the sea like a zillion lemmings?

  9. Wayne Job says:

    One day our erstwhile scientists will come to realise that eventually you come to a point where you realise that you know nothing. Then you start to learn that “there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio”

Comments are closed.