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…
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: