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Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Bacteria and other microbes are the only thing that will ultimately clean up the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

By David Biello, Scientific American, excerpt

The last (and only) defense against the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is tiny—billions of hydrocarbon-chewing microbes, such as Alcanivorax borkumensis. In fact, the primary motive for using the more than 830,000 gallons of chemical dispersants on the oil slick both above and below the surface of the sea is to break the oil into smaller droplets that bacteria can more easily consume.

“If the oil is in very small droplets, microbial degradation is much quicker,” says microbial ecologist Kenneth Lee, director of the Center for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who has been measuring the oil droplets in the Gulf of Mexico to determine the effectiveness of the dispersant use. “The dispersants can also stimulate microbial growth. Bacteria will chew on the dispersants as well as the oil.”

== snip ==

At the same time, the addition of 130,000 gallons of dispersants deep beneath the surface is having uncertain effects; it may even end up killing the microbes it is meant to help thanks to the fact that Corexit 9527A contains the solvent 2-butoxyethanol, which is a known human carcinogen and toxic to animals and other life. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others are monitoring whether adding such dispersants ends up boosting microbe-growth and hence dangerously depletes oxygen levels, among other potential environmental ill effects.

Nor is it clear how fast the microbial community will respond. “Which microbial communities are the fastest responders?” Teske asks. “That would be interesting to know” and this oil spill may provide the real- world answer. Some research suggests that oil spills may actually feed themselves nitrogen by stimulating the growth of various bacteria that fix the vital nutrient, Joye notes. At the same time, microbial predators such as protozoa tend to dampen the efficiency of would-be oil-eating microbes.



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