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Aug 24, 2010 8:17 PM by Chris Welty

New Microbe Discovered Eating Oil Spill in Gulf

WASHINGTON (AP) - A newly discovered type of oil-eating microbe
is suddenly flourishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists discovered the new microbe while studying the
underwater dispersion of millions of gallons of oil spilled into
the Gulf following the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling
rig.
And the microbe works without significantly depleting oxygen in
the water, researchers led by Terry Hazen at Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., reported Tuesday in the
online journal Sciencexpress.
"Our findings, which provide the first data ever on microbial
activity from a deepwater dispersed oil plume, suggest" a great
potential for bacteria to help dispose of oil plumes in the
deep-sea, Hazen said in a stat ent.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about the giant oil spill
and the underwater plume of dispersed oil, particularly its
potential effects on sea life. A report just last week described a
22-mile long underwater mist of tiny oil droplets.
"Our findings show that the influx of oil profoundly altered
the microbial community by significantly stimulating deep-sea"
cold temperature bacteria that are closely related to known
petroleum-degrading microbes, Hazen reported.
Their findings are based on more than 200 samples collected from
17 deepwater sites between May 25 and June 2. They found that the
dominant microbe in the oil plume is a new species, closely related
to members of Oceanospirillales.
This microbe thrives in cold water, with temperatures in the
deep recorded at 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit).
Hazen suggested that the bacteria may have adapted over time due
to periodic leaks and natural se..s of oil in the Gulf.
Scientists also had been concerned that oil-eating activity by
microbes would consume large amounts of oxygen in the water,
creating a "dead zone" dangerous to other life. But the new study
found that oxygen saturation outside the oil plume was 67-percent
while within the plume it was 59-percent.
The research was supported by an existing grant with the Energy
Biosciences Institute, a partnership led by the University of
California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois that is funded
by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP. Other support came from
the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Oklahoma
Research Foundation.
Sciencexpress is the online edition of the journal Science.

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