Study: Microbes helping in gulf spill

Oct. 21, 2010 at 8:37 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Microbes in the Gulf of Mexico may be consuming more of the gases spewed from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill than previously thought, researchers say.

Research carried out before the oil rig exploded and gushed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the gulf measured the anaerobic oxidation of methane, a major component of the spill, by microbes living in brine pools on the sea floor, reported Thursday.

"Because of the ample oil and gas reserves under the Gulf of Mexico, slow seepage is a natural part of the ecosystem," Peter R. Girguis, a professor of biology at Harvard University, says.

"Entire communities have arisen on the seafloor that depend on these seeps. Our analysis shows that within these communities, some microbes consume methane 10 to 100 times faster than we've previously realized."

In research conducted within 100 miles of where the spill would occur, scientists measured methane concentrations in brine pools surrounding gas seeps at the bottom of the gulf.

Combining this data with measurements of microbial activity, they were able to extrapolate just how quickly the microbes were consuming the methane.

"In fact, we observed oxidation of methane by these microbes at the highest rates ever recorded in seawater," Girguis says.

Girguis cautions that methane is just part of what spilled from the well and that the rate at which methane spewed from it before being capped July 15 far exceeded the flow that microbes would ordinarily encounter in the gulf.

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