Scientists studying 'oil-eating' microbes

July 2, 2010 at 4:14 PM
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla., July 2 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers have begun a study to determine how quickly natural microbial communities in beach sand can degrade oil from the Gulf spill, officials say.

Florida State University scientists hope to be able to predict when most of the oil washing up on state beaches will be gone, and whether there are ways to accelerate the degradation rate, a university release said.

"We can remove the oil from the beach surface, but oil is also carried deeper into the sand, and we need to understand what happens to that oil," FSU oceanography professor Markus Huettel said.

St. George Island, Fla., and Dauphin Island, Ala., have been the primary research sites since the one-year study began in early June. Researchers have obtained heavily oiled sand from Pensacola Beach, Fla., and from a barrier island off the Louisiana coast.

Samples will be analyzed to find out how deeply oil is carried into the sand and how rapidly microbes in the sand are breaking it down.

While large accumulations of crude oil such as tarballs remain on the surface of sand, liquid oil can penetrate many feet deep into the permeable beach sand, researchers say.

"Crude oil is a natural component that constantly seeps out of Gulf of Mexico sediments -- obviously in much smaller quantities than those now caused by the drilling accident -- so native microbes have evolved that consume this oil and thereby degrade it," FSU oceanographer Joel E. Kostka said.

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