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Is new species of microbe gobbling up Gulf oil spill?

A study released Tuesday suggests that a new species of microbe is consuming the undersea plumes in the Gulf oil spill – perhaps more quickly than scientists anticipated.

By Staff writer / August 24, 2010

A newly discovered type of microbe degrades oil, which is indicated by the circle of dashes, in a plume from the Gulf oil spill.

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Microbes found in an undersea cloud of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout may have the potential to degrade oil faster than previously thought, according to a new study published Tuesday.

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The results are among the first in what is expected to become a deluge of studies on the Gulf oil spill. By offering data on how fast microbes consume oil, the results could be useful in helping scientists to determine what happened to the oil and how the oil could affect marine life.

In addition, the results also suggest that most of the microbes in the cloud are a new species that do not significantly deplete oxygen in the water as they consume the oil.

The work represents "the first insight into the organisms that are involved" in degrading oil clouds in the Gulf oil spill, says David Valentine, a microbiologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has long studied the undersea microbes as underwater cleanup crews for oil.

The microbiology analysis is "very, very good," says Dr. Valentine, who was not part of the team, which reported its results in an early release by Science Express.

Second study in two weeks

This latest research follows another look at the same plume of highly diluted oil droplets, released last Thursday.

Both groups found some similarities: They put the plume at roughly the same depth, and they recorded similar, very low concentrations of key hydrocarbons – roughly the equivalent of 9 gallons of hydrocarbons for every million gallons of sea water.

They also both detected only a light dip in oxygen levels compared with water outside the plume. In that way, the studies attempted to tackle a question raised by many marine scientists: To what degree would microbial activity create a mass of relatively low-oxygen water, which could affect bottom-dwelling creatures in certain areas of the Gulf?

The study released last week, led by scientists with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, inferred that bacteria had not broken down the oil appreciably, based on oxygen measurements. The team collected its measurements during a nine-day cruise that started June 19.

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