October 8, 2008

Subsurface Life Likes Lots and Lots of Oil

U.S. scientists have found organisms thousands of feet below the Pacific Ocean's surface off Santa Barbara, Calif., are feasting on oil -- lots of oil.

Until now, nobody knew how many oil compounds were being eaten. But the study led by Associate Professor David Valentine of the University of California-Santa Barbara and Chris Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts has shed new light on the process.

"It takes a special organism to live half a mile deep in the Earth and eat oil for a living," said Valentine. "There's this incredibly complex diet for organisms down there eating the oil. It's like a buffet."

The researchers said there might be one particular byproduct being produced by such microorganisms: natural gas.

"It's actually a whole consortium of organisms -- some that are eating the oil and producing intermediate products, and then those intermediate products are converted by another group to natural gas," said Valentine.

The study that included George Wardlaw of UCSB, J. Samuel Arey of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and G. Todd Ventura and Robert Nelson, both of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is detailed in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.