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Oil-eating microbes help clean up the Gulf

BP spill 2010 oil eating microbes

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#1 Palisades

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Posted 29 July 2010 - 02:51 PM

http://news.yahoo.co...ews_excl_sc3270

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Where is all the oil? Nearly two weeks after BP finally capped the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, the oil slicks that once spread across thousands of miles of the Gulf of Mexico have largely disappeared. Nor has much oil washed up on the sandy beaches and marshes along the Louisiana coast. And the small cleanup army in the Gulf has only managed to skim up a tiny fraction of the millions of gallons of oil spilled in the 100 days since the Deepwater Horizon rig went up in flames.

So where did the oil go? ... Perhaps the most important cause of the oil’s disappearance, some researchers suspect, is that the oil has been devoured by microbes. The lesson from past spills is that the lion’s share of the cleanup work is done by nature in the form of oil-eating bacteria and fungi. The microbes break down the hydrocarbons in oil to use as fuel to grow and reproduce. A bit of oil in the water is like a feeding frenzy, causing microbial populations to grow exponentially.

Typically, there are enough microbes in the ocean to consume half of any oil spilled in a month or two, says [Cornell University ecologist Richard Howarth]. Such microbes have been found in every ocean of the world sampled, from the Arctic to Antarctica. But there are reasons to think that the process may occur more quickly in the Gulf than in other oceans.

Microbes grow faster in the warmer water of the Gulf than they do in, say, the cool waters off Alaska, where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred. Moreover, the Gulf is hardly pristine. Even before humans started drilling for oil in the Gulf — and spilling lots of it — oil naturally seeped into the water. As a result, the Gulf evolved a rich collection of petroleum-loving microbes, ready to pounce on any new spill. The microbes are clever and tough, observes Samantha Joye, microbial geochemist at the University of Georgia. Joye has shown that oxygen levels in parts of the Gulf contaminated with oil have dropped. Since microbes need oxygen to eat the petroleum, that’s evidence that the microbes are hard at work.

The controversial dispersant used to break up the oil as it gushed from the deep-sea well may have helped the microbes do their work. Microbes can more easily consume small drops of oil than big ones. And there is evidence the microbes like to munch on the dispersant as well.

Go microbes!

The article also says that a large portion of the oil simply evaporates into the atmosphere.

Edited by Palisade, 29 July 2010 - 02:53 PM.

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#2 Nick

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Posted 29 July 2010 - 03:11 PM

It's still far from over, I'm afraid.  While conditions in the Gulf are conducive to a faster breakdown than in Alaska, the microbes don't eat all of it, and it's still unclear how much this oil and minerals it contained will ultimately wind up in the food chain and the effects of biomagnification.

We'll be testing seafood for many years.

And while it's only a temporary problem, the oxygen depletion is creating large "dead zones."  Any fish that swim in to those areas will suffocate until the microbes have finished their work and oxygen levels are replenished.

#3 offworlder

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Posted 29 July 2010 - 05:15 PM

mass is mass ; if it was there it's there ; it's more spread out now, all over to Florida, and broken into smaller bits; and more below than on the surface; oil is not lighter than water.
It's not all right there below Biloxi, but if you include Florida all the way to Venice, and the huge amounts of water between the floor and the surface, it is 3D you know ... >>> it's still there.
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#4 Chakoteya

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Posted 30 July 2010 - 02:09 AM

Yes, it is still there, but less visible. My experience of the aftermath of Torrey Canyon disaster in the SW of England says that you'll get occasional bits of oil washing up for decades after. But nature - tides, winds and microbes - will make it less. Being a warmer climate in the Gulf, the microbes have a head start compared to up here, so they will do slightly better, but a little fertilizer might also help the cleanup along. The process is called Bioremediation. Go look it up if you like.
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#5 Nonny

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Posted 30 July 2010 - 10:54 AM

View PostNick, on 29 July 2010 - 03:11 PM, said:

It's still far from over, I'm afraid.  While conditions in the Gulf are conducive to a faster breakdown than in Alaska, the microbes don't eat all of it, and it's still unclear how much this oil and minerals it contained will ultimately wind up in the food chain and the effects of biomagnification.

We'll be testing seafood for many years.

And while it's only a temporary problem, the oxygen depletion is creating large "dead zones."  Any fish that swim in to those areas will suffocate until the microbes have finished their work and oxygen levels are replenished.
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#6 Vapor Trails

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Posted 30 July 2010 - 02:09 PM

Sorry, but I'm skeptical.

Furthermore, I've heard that the dispersants used to break up the oil might actually KILL the very bacteria that eats it-and that we don't know enough about those dispersants to be absolutely certain of its safety.

Now that the oil leak has been capped (  :suspect:  :suspect: ), it seems that some folks want to say that the end of the nightmare is here and that we can begin to look forward to healing and rebuilding.

Hmph. I'm not gonna hold my breath. I'm not interested in looking like a Smurf, thanks.  :suspect:
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#7 Nick

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Posted 30 July 2010 - 03:04 PM

View PostAnalog Kid, on 30 July 2010 - 02:09 PM, said:

Sorry, but I'm skeptical.

Furthermore, I've heard that the dispersants used to break up the oil might actually KILL the very bacteria that eats it-and that we don't know enough about those dispersants to be absolutely certain of its safety.

It's good to be skeptical, especially of this when we've been misled so much on this particular disaster.  However, we know from the oxygen depletion in the plumes that they are indeed hard at work, eating both oil and dispersant.  The question remains--how long will it take them to eat it all, what happens to their "leftovers" and how much of this crap will be running through the food chain for many years to come?

Can weathered oil settle to the bottom and coat the sea floor with toxic muck?  What happens to all the dissolved heavy metals present in the oil?  Are those going in to the food chain as well?

Lots of unanswered questions.  Just because the oil is less visible, that doesn't make it any less deadly.  We have very little idea what will happen to it and the ultimate effects of an oil release this big into the gulf.  And we'll be finding new effects for years to come. :(

Quote

Now that the oil leak has been capped (  :suspect:  :suspect: ), it seems that some folks want to say that the end of the nightmare is here and that we can begin to look forward to healing and rebuilding.

Hmph. I'm not gonna hold my breath. I'm not interested in looking like a Smurf, thanks.  :suspect:

It ain't over.

Not by a long shot.

They're still going to try Top Kill 2.0 (which is stupid, imo) and BP had conveniently switched off the feeds from the Skandi ROVs that were monitoring the small (yet growing) leaks in the sides of the HC connector.  After some calls, e-mails, and a direct question during a press conference to the Thadmiral, BP has switched the feeds back on (three days later) but they ROVs are curiously not showing any part of the stack above the BOP (where the leaks were being monitored).

In other words, BP doesn't want anybody else seeing how the leaks really look right now.

#8 Nikcara

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Posted 30 July 2010 - 06:40 PM

Oil-eating microbes are good, and I'm glad that they're hard at work, but they're not flawless.  I don't know what kinds of by-products they produce (after all, even microbes have to poop).  I also don't know if they need oxygen or not - some kinds of bacteria can use oxygen, but can survive and grow without it.  Given that they've been depleting such vast amounts of oxygen, they may effectively suffocate themselves.  If they can switch to non-oxygen growth, one of the by-products will be some form of alcohol.  Depending on how much and what type, this could have a variety of different effects on the ecosystem (not to mention giving the fish the buzz of their life).  Regardless, I'm sure they're producing vast amounts of gas, and if college microbiology taught me anything it's that the gas produced will stink to high heaven.  

Still, I'm glad that something is finally going right for the clean-up process.
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#9 Nick

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Posted 31 July 2010 - 10:00 AM

View PostNikcara, on 30 July 2010 - 06:40 PM, said:

Oil-eating microbes are good, and I'm glad that they're hard at work, but they're not flawless.  I don't know what kinds of by-products they produce (after all, even microbes have to poop).  I also don't know if they need oxygen or not - some kinds of bacteria can use oxygen, but can survive and grow without it.  Given that they've been depleting such vast amounts of oxygen, they may effectively suffocate themselves.  If they can switch to non-oxygen growth, one of the by-products will be some form of alcohol.  Depending on how much and what type, this could have a variety of different effects on the ecosystem (not to mention giving the fish the buzz of their life).  Regardless, I'm sure they're producing vast amounts of gas, and if college microbiology taught me anything it's that the gas produced will stink to high heaven.  

Still, I'm glad that something is finally going right for the clean-up process.

Oil is dead plants and critters, so it all began as CO2, water & energy, and that's (mostly) what it'll wind up reverting back in to.  The oil-eating bacteria consume oxygen in the process, there may be "anaerobic modes" or other species that jump in when the oxygen is depleted, I don't know, but by and large they're breathing oxygen, eating oil and pooping water and CO2.

Oxygen becomes the limiting factor in how quickly they can work.  They don't necessarily suffocate without it, it just slows them down.



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