Role of bacteria in degrading Gulf oil spill revealed

Recirculation of water allowed bacteria to increase in number and degrade the chemicals more rapidly.

Washington: Since last year`s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, microbiologists have been working to understand how underwater currents may have primed marine microorganisms to degrade the oil.

David Valentine, an earth science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been studying microbial communities and the fate of chemicals 4000 feet below the surface from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill since June of 2010.

The findings of his research may prove to be crucial in addressing the environmental consequences of the disaster.

Valentine and his colleagues recently developed a computer simulation by coupling the Naval Research Laboratory`s physical oceanographic model with their own discoveries and knowledge of the microbes responsible for breaking down the chemicals.

"We took the physical model of the deep Gulf of Mexico, added the hydrocarbons and bacteria, set reasonable guidelines for metabolism, and let them eat starting at day 1 of the spill," said Valentine.

To confirm that the model was providing them with an accurate picture of what had happened they compared the model to spot measurements they and others had previously made in the Gulf.

The most interesting observation they found using the model was dynamic auto-inoculation. Many parcels of water circulated in and out of the source area. Each iteration allowed the bacterial populations to increase in number and degrade the chemicals more rapidly.

"The more recirculation you have, the more quickly the hydrocarbons will be consumed," said Valentine.

The study was presented at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.


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