New Microbe Discovered Eating Gulf Oil Spill

Daily News Article   —   Posted on August 26, 2010

(from FoxNews.com) AP, WASHINGTON — 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 statement.

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 seeps 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 [aquatic] 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 low concentrations of iron in seawater may have prevented oxygen concentrations dropping more precipitously from biodegradation demand on the petroleum, since many hydrocarbon-degrading enzymes have iron as a component,” Hazen said. “There’s not enough iron to form more of these enzymes, which would degrade the carbon faster but also consume more oxygen.”]

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.

Associated Press.  Reprinted from FoxNews.com.  For educational purposes only.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at foxnews.com.

Questions

1. Define the following as used in the article:
microbe
dispersion/disperse
bacteria
dispose of

2. How are microbes helping the ocean environment?

3. What problem would there be if microbes reduced the amount of oxygen in the water?

4. How did the amount of oil-eating bacteria increase in the Gulf of Mexico?

5. Watch the video from July about oil-eating microbes under “Resources” below.  The woman from the biotechnic company said if left to do on its own, the ocean’s microbes could take up to 500 years to disperse the oil.  Dire predictions were made about the mass destruction the oil spill was causing/would cause to aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico. What is your reaction to the news about the spread of the oil-eating microbe? Be specific.

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Background

NOTE: oil-eating bacteria rely on oil to provide it with energy. Relatively rare in unpolluted seas, it quickly comes to dominate the marine microbial ecosystem after an oil spill, and it can be found throughout the world’s oceans. (from scientificamerican.com)

Resources

Watch a news video on the oil spill from July 2010, one of many which made dire predictions about the oil spill.  Note the biotechnic company’s representative stating that, if left to do it on their own, the ocean’s microbes could take up to 500 years to disperse the oil:
























Answer(s)

Definitions to words in question #1:

microbe – a microscopic living organism, such as a bacterium [bacteria], fungus, protozoan or virus. (from biology-online.org/dictionary)

dispersion (noun) / disperse (verb) – from definition 1C: to cause to evaporate or vanish (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary, m-w.com)

bacteria – [plural of bacterium] a type of very small organism that lives in air, earth, water, plants and animals, often one which causes a disease (from dictionary.cambridge.org)

dispose of – from definition 2b: to get rid of (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary, m-w.com)