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Biotech Earth Science

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

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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 30, 2010 @05:44PM (#32050242)

    The article makes it very clear that the bacteria convert the oil into harmless lipids, peptides and amino acids.

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

    by buchner.johannes ( 1139593 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @06:16PM (#32050600) Homepage Journal

    so you choose the famous last words "can't get worse, right?"

  • Re:Why so serious? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @07:06PM (#32051142)

    Those aren't just plain jane pipes stuck in the mud, they are loaded to the gills with failsafes. The other fail-safes worked (with regards to capping the well, anyway) but they were all topside on the rig, and so obviously they did no good when the rig burned down. The pipe eventually fell over with no rig to support it, creating the current break in the pipe.

    There is actually a fail-safe sitting on the sea floor on this particular pipe just in case this exact situation. It operates a lot like some electronic/mechanical fail-safes where if the electrical connection is lost it triggers an unstoppable mechanical shutdown. The fail-safe in one this pipes require a certain amount of pressure flowing through the pipe, or it will hydraulically crimp the pipe closed. For some reason, it did never triggered, nobody yet knows why (my money is a pressure calculation mistake when setting up the tolerances).

    What you can definitely blame BP for right now, without any new information, is not installing a remote trigger for this last-ditch fail-safe. It's my understanding that most drill rigs have a remote trigger, and the fact that this rig doesn't screams cut corners to save time. If they'd had one installed, they could have closed the leak by now, and it would be no big deal to wait another 3 months before it is actually capped.

    Since this is BP's third major catastrophe in 5 years, I would not be surprised if they lose their license to operate.

  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @07:11PM (#32051196)

    Microbes survive everywhere, there is almost certainly a type that can survive on the ocean's surface and metabolize the oil. I have no idea for sure, but it's almost a given, with microbes.

    Last estimate I heard was three months to cap the well.

  • Re:Containment (Score:4, Informative)

    by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @07:42PM (#32051576)

    True, it is huge now but what about earlier when it could have been manageable?

    You think that wasn't the very first thing they did after putting out the fire? There was no "earlier when it could have been manageable", the pipe broke off about 5-10 feet above the sea floor, which is well over a mile below sea level. Do you realize the kind of dispersion you get with that? It spreads out for tens of miles before it even hits the surface.

    It's also an emulsion, which does not corral as well as oil sitting on top of water - an emulsion sits at the top, since there is oil in it, but not really on the top like pure oil does, since there is a lot of water in it too. They've got 30-40 miles of boom out there now to try and contain it and it isn't good enough to keep some of it from hitting the coast.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @08:33PM (#32052114) Journal
    Heavy metals are a special nuisance because its the atom, not the molecule, that is of concern. There are a lot of ghastly poisons and unpleasant pollutants that turn into a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and maybe a dash of phosphorus, nitrogen, an whatnot, if you burn them hard enough, or if some clever bacterium gets to them. Heavy metals aren't one of them.

    Barring the development of a bacterium clever enough to catalyze nuclear fission, though, heavy metals aren't going anywhere. Best case scenario, they are(either through organic or inorganic processes) converted into relatively biologically inactive forms, and get incorporated into sediments and just sort of sit there. Worst case, they remain in highly bioavailable forms and float around the food chain wreaking havoc of various flavors.

    I'm not an expert; but my understanding is that bacteria and other organisms can cut both ways on this. Some(either by happenstance, or as an evolved measure to protect their own biological systems) have chemical means of binding heavy metals into relatively inoffensive molecules. Others make things worse(from our perspective). There are a number of types of bacteria that can convert mercury(hardly salubrious; but less offensive than its reputation would suggest) into methylmercury(substantially nastier).
  • "Unclear?" (Score:4, Informative)

    by Huntr ( 951770 ) on Friday April 30, 2010 @09:07PM (#32052364)

    At this point it's unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause

    Actually, it's pretty clear. This likely will go down as the worst environmental disaster in US history, in terms of its environmental and financial impacts. Estimates [] say it's leaking 1 million gal per day. That means we're just about at EVE [] already. It will take at least a few months to get another well drilled and this one capped.

    In that time, LA and other Gulf oyster and shrimping fisheries are going away. That's $2.5-3 billion to LA per year. Coastal wetlands are going to be devastated - can't scrub the plants, have to burn the wetlands to clean it up. Hundreds of species of wildlife will be impacted. Their marine and estuarine habitats will be severely harmed. And we haven't even discussed the impact to beaches and Florida's $3 billion Gulf Coast tourism industry, yet. Hope the slick/tar balls don't hit the Loop current and end up in Miami Beach or even Daytona.

    This is bad, folks.

  • Re:Containment (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 01, 2010 @08:49AM (#32055450)

    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?

    6-foot seas. Not only does the oil get tossed right over the top of the booms, the heavy wave activity is causing the links between the booms to break, opening up gaps between the booms.

    The same activity is also churning the oil into "mousse" which is harder for the bacteria to consume (recent news article).

When a fellow says, "It ain't the money but the principle of the thing," it's the money. -- Kim Hubbard