Hungry Hungry Microbes: Oil Eating Bacteria Help to Clean Up Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Alan McStravick for – Your Universe Online

The Deepwater Horizon, an ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, semi-submersible off-shore drilling rig was an engineering marvel that set the record for drilling the world´s deepest oil well in September 2009. The roughly 7-mile-deep well is now infamous for being the site of the single largest off-shore oil spill in history, a disaster that captured the attention of world media for over 3 months.

While BP has accepted responsibility for the spill, launched an extensive recovery campaign and undertaken a public-relations blitz that aims to resurrect their tarnished global image by assisting the devastated tourism industry in the Gulf region, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe continues to find ways to remind us all that the clean-up is still a work in progress.

Louisiana State University recently conducted lab tests on oil and tar that washed ashore after Hurricane Isaac stalled out in the gulf region last month. According to a CBS News report, the tests proved conclusively that oil found last month on Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle in Louisiana matched the biological fingerprint of the hundreds of millions of gallons of oil that gushed out of BP’s Macondo Well.

Over a period of 4 months, the research duo studied the dissolution of oxygen in the ocean over an area of nearly 30,000 square miles. They were able to conclude that blooms of bacterial biomass were consuming oil and gas that was trapped in layers up to a half-mile below the water´s surface. To date, they confirmed that the bacteria had already devoured at least 200,000 tons of spilled oil and gas.

“A significant amount of the oil and gas that was released was retained within the ocean water more than one-half mile below the sea surface. It appears that the hydrocarbon-eating bacteria did a good job of removing the majority of the material that was retained in these layers,” stated Kessler.

The method they used in their study focused on the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the water, which occur as a natural by-product of bacterial respiration similar to the way humans consume oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.

It is also believed that the introduction of man-made dispersants at the wellhead acted to accelerate the rate of hydrocarbon respiration.

“Interestingly, the oil and gas consumption rate was correlated with the addition of dispersants at the wellhead. While there is still much to learn about the appropriateness of using dispersants in a natural ecosystem, our results suggest it made the released hydrocarbons more available to the native Gulf of Mexico microorganisms,” explained Kessler.

The peak of bacterial consumption took place in July, 2010, but as the authors stated that they still do not know whether they have already achieved a maximum consumption level. Theoretically, the possibility exists that the July peak was just an appetizer course that is to be followed by an eventual entree and dessert course.

While further study is necessary, the implications for oil companies and governments and how they mount future disaster clean-up operations could be invaluable. Adversity and disaster will undoubtedly occur when there is so much risk involved. The study is a prime example of humanity’s long procession to advancement by finding opportunities in even the worst of situations.