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Biotech Earth Science

Can Oil-Eating Bacteria Help Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill? 139

Posted by Soulskill
from the if-only-we-hadn't-converted-to-green-bacteria dept.
sciencehabit writes "At this point it's unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause, but the federal government is mobilizing thousands of workers to prepare for the worst. They have a potential ally: microbes that have evolved an ability to break down oil that seeps from the ocean bottom. It gets devoured by a variety of bacteria, which eat it by chemically transforming its compounds into useful cellular constituents." Wired has some pictures of the spill from orbiting satellites.
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Can Oil-Eating Bacteria Help Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill?

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  • Of course (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 30, 2010 @05:36PM (#32050150)
    Humans always have good luck introducing a new species into an untested environment. *popcorn*
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday April 30, 2010 @05:46PM (#32050274) Journal
    Obviously, over a sufficiently long time, all but the nastiest flavors of hydrocarbon are subject to biological attack(which, among other reasons, is why there isn't much free oil just sitting around on the earth's surface, and what is close to the surface has mostly degraded into a hardened mass of tar).

    However, if anybody thinks that bacteria that evolved to metabolize oil seeps are going to be able to eat the output of a more or less uncapped modern production well before it floats and oils a whole lot of birds/beach/furry animals, they are dreaming.

    There are practically no complex organic compounds that are truly persistent, between UV and adventurous microbes; but there are plenty that are persistent enough that you'll be dead by the time they've worked themselves out.
  • Re:Of course (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FooAtWFU (699187) on Friday April 30, 2010 @05:47PM (#32050290) Homepage
    It would be difficult, if not impossible, for it be much worse than introducing a few million gallons of crude oil into the same environment.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 30, 2010 @05:51PM (#32050332)

    "If the bacteria will eat the oil"; but "Will it ever stop if released?"

  • Containment (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Cyclloid (948776) on Friday April 30, 2010 @06:24PM (#32050686)
    What ever happened to those chains of floats used to encircle a spill and contain it? True, it is huge now but what about earlier when it could have been manageable?
  • by seifried (12921) on Friday April 30, 2010 @06:55PM (#32050988) Homepage
    But this is a relatively concentrated spill as compared to the runoff from the Mississippi river. Most things aren't a problem if sufficiently diluted ("the solution to pollution is dilution" as the old saying goes, put it up a smoke stack or into a river and it's all good). This is concentrated sufficiently to cause real problems.
  • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Friday April 30, 2010 @07:16PM (#32051268)

    Listen, I don't want to get crucified for this, but I did the math yesterday. 5,000 barrels a day sounds like a lot, but this spill only adds about 45% to the total daily runoff coming out of the Mississippi anyway.

    Not entirely sure what you mean by this. Are you saying that the Mississippi 'leaks' 11,000 barrels of crude oil into the Mexican Gulf a day?

    I did my own math on that. The river [wikipedia.org] has an average discharge of 12,743 m^3/s. One barrel of oil [wikipedia.org] is 0.158'987'3 m^3. 11,000 barrels a day equals 0.020'241'438'7 m^3/s, which is 1.6 * 10^-4%. Granted, that's really not a lot, but at 83 dollars a barrel, it does sound rather odd if the oil companies would be willing to let almost a million dollars a day just drift away

    The problem with oil though, isn't so much that there's a lot of it, because in this case, there really isn't. It's just under 800 m^3 a day, and the Gulf of Mexico is a huge body of water. But oil floats, it sticks to things (like birds and mammals), it makes anything that has been in contact with it inedible for humans and our feed stock. This means we can't use any of the fish that have been in contact with oil for anything. We can't eat them and we can't feed them to our livestock. I doubt they could even be used as a fertilizer. It's probably lethal for any kind of fish anyway, as it tends to clog up their gills. And just to make it a bit more tricky, it reduces the amount of sunlight that can be used by algae - i.e. it ruins the entire bottom of the food chain.

    But again, we're only talking 800 m^3 a day. But oil doesn't lump together until it has become tar. Until then it tends to lay in the upper 0.002 mm [wikipedia.org] of the water table (given enough room, which is clearly available in the Gulf) when it's really thick. So now we're looking at 800 m^3 but only 0.002 mm deep. This gives us an area of 400 km^2.

    So, each day we're covering a 400 km^2 (154 miles^2) with a relatively thick layer of oil every single day. This has been going on since April 20th. That's 20 days, so 4,000 km^2 which is the same size as Rhode Island.

    And just to make it a bit more fun ... it's not just an oil slick the size of Rhode Island drifting towards the Gulf coast. No. They've been trying to set it on fire, so now it's a wall of fire the size of Rhode Island drifting towards the Gulf coast.

  • Re:Of course (Score:3, Insightful)

    by interkin3tic (1469267) on Friday April 30, 2010 @08:30PM (#32052090)

    Humans always have good luck introducing a new species into an untested environment

    Sounds like these bacteria are already in the ocean, eating naturally occouring oil leaking out of the earth. I suspect that the reason you don't find these bacteria already out there in the gulf of mexico would be that their food usually ISN'T there, not that these or similar bacteria haven't ever been introduced there.

    Having said that, it takes remarkable arrogance to suggest testing that theory on a massive scale. Who are these people using the environment as a lab anyway... oh right, it's the oil company that dumped it there in the first place, one of the ones trying to convince us to continue testing climate change theories.

    Anyway, look at the title of the article. "Can we save the beaches." Pretty clear the focus here is on keeping the problem from getting into people's backyards, people who will then sue. The focus is -not- on preventing any further harm in the gulf.

APL is a write-only language. I can write programs in APL, but I can't read any of them. -- Roy Keir

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