By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID
WASHINGTON – The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has revealed a previously unknown type of oil-eating bacteria, which is suddenly flourishing.
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 reported Tuesday in the online journal Science Express.
“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.
Before the spill the microbes in the deepest parts of the Gulf were not well known and there was little carbon present in the area of cool temperatures and high pressure.
“We deployed on two ships to determine the physical, chemical and microbiological properties of the deepwater oil plume,” Hazen said. “The oil escaping from the damaged wellhead represented an enormous carbon input to the water column.”
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 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.