Oil-eating microbe found in the Gulf of Mexico

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A group of researchers led by Terry Hazen, a senior ecologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have discovered a new species of microorganism. Hazen’s team started research in May this year. Their findings were based on more than 200 samples collected from 17 deep-water sites in the Gulf of Mexico between May 25 and June 2. The new species is distinctive for its oil-consuming activity in a wide range of conditions, and is playing a role in depletion of oil spills in the area.

Scientists had been puzzled by the disappearance of oil in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Detailed maps were made on how the spilled oil went underwater and how far it was spread; however, some of it seemed to have disappeared.

A grant from the Energy Biosciences Institute, and a partnership led by the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois that is funded by a USD 500 million, 10-year grant from BP, was the basis for support of the research. The U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Oklahoma Research Foundation also supported it.

The field study was conducted during the first week. As Hazen said, “We deployed on two ships to determine the physical, chemical and microbiological properties of the deepwater oil plume. The oil escaping from the damaged wellhead represented an enormous carbon input to the water column ecosystem and while we suspected that hydrocarbon components in the oil could potentially serve as a carbon substrate for deep-sea microbes, scientific data was needed for informed decisions.”

Sample analysis was eased because the researchers used the pocket-sized Berkeley Lab DNA sampler PhyloChip. It allowed researchers to detect the presence of thousands of species of bacteria in samples from a wide range of environmental sources, without the culturing procedures usually performed in a furnished lab workplace. With the device, Hazen and his co-researchers discovered that a dominant microbe, making up 90 percent of all the bacteria in the oil plume, is a new species, closely related to members of Oceanospirillales family, more specifically Oleispirea antarctica and Oceaniserpentilla haliotis.

The previous works were measuring low levels of oxygen in certain areas to detect microbes activity. Researchers thought that increased activity would lead to more aerobic activities, such as breathing, which depletes the oxygen content in water. However, the newly discovered species doesn’t seem to be consuming much oxygen from the water column. The study found that oxygen saturation outside the oil plume was 67-percent, while within the plume, it was 59-percent. By Terry Hazen’s words, “The low concentrations of iron in seawater may have prevented oxygen concentrations dropping more precipitously from biodegradation demand on the petroleum, since many hydrocarbon-degrading enzymes have iron as a component… There’s not enough iron to form more of these enzymes, which would degrade the carbon faster but also consume more oxygen.”

Analysis of changes in the oil composition as the plume extended from the wellhead pointed to faster than expected biodegradation rates with the half-life of alkanes ranging from 1.2 to 6.1 days. This microbe thrives in cold water, with temperatures in the deep recorded at 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit).

The summer observations showed the bacteria managed to consume the oil spill relatively quickly in June. Some commenters noted that the previously released oil dispersant COREXIT can have significantly eased the process of interaction of the microbes with the oil by making oil particles smaller and easier to access. As Hazen explained, “We’ve been out there continuously… Once the oil flow stopped on July 15, within two weeks we saw most of the plume disappear.”


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Wikinews Shorts: August 4, 2010

Correction — August 13, 2010
This article incorrectly describes BP as ‘British Petroleum’. In fact, such a company has not existed for many years as BP dropped this name when becoming a multinational company. The initials no longer stand for anything.

A compilation of brief news reports for Wednesday, August 4, 2010.

BP starts “static kill” to permanently stop oil spill[edit]

With “static kill”, BP hopes to get rid of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for good.
Image: NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response.

BP (British Petroleum) engineers began injecting drilling mud into the capped Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico as the first part of a “static kill” procedure intended to permanently stop the flow of oil into the Gulf coast. Earlier in the day, the multi-national energy company ran “injectivity tests” to find out if the well, which had been leaking for months, could withstand the pressure of the procedure, which is meant to plug up the oil that isn’t flowing because the well has been capped. The procedure, unlike the “top kill” attempted in May, is designed to proceed slowly.

After a day-long delay, BP declared that the procedure could safely begin and that company’s senior vice president, Kent Wells, said that the afternoon pressure test “went exactly as planned”.

The company also said that the “static kill” was only half the solution, with the other half being two relief wells that are planned to plug the well from the bottom.


Drunk illegal immigrant kills nun, injures two[edit]

An illegal immigrant accused of driving drunk has been charged with killing Sister Denise Mosier, a nun, and severely injuring two other nuns. Carlos Martinelly Montano, 23, has been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) and involuntary manslaughter, following a car crash which occurred at 8:30 AM EDT on Sunday (0030 Monday, UTC). The man has also been charged with felony driving under a revoked drivers license. The car accident occurred in Virginia, USA’s Prince William County. Police also said that Montano is an illegal immigrant awaiting deportation and has also repeatedly been charged with drunk driving.

The US Department of Homeland Security stated that Montano had been released in 2008, with immigration judge’s review of his case pending. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the accident “a horrible thing” and saying, “this is a horrible case. Why is it that this individual was still out driving? He was in removal proceedings. Why were the removal proceedings taking so long?”

All three nuns were driving to a retreat at the Benedictine Monastery in Bristow, Va when Montano crashed into their car. Montano has been treated for injuries.


Kenyans to vote on new constitution[edit]

On Wednesday, Kenyans will vote whether to accept a new constitution.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

On Wednesday, Kenyans will vote on a new constitution that intends to fix many of the country’s political problems like widespread corruption and heightened ethnic divisions. Wednesday has been declared a public holiday so more people can vote.

Billie O’Kadameri of Radio France International described opposition that arose from an alliance of churches and political leaders. Warnings of disruption in opposition areas have marred what the government initially hoped would be a united vote in support of the proposal.

However, Salim Lone, senior adviser to Prime Minister Raila Odinga, said that “[Kenyans] are united as we have never been since independence more than 45 years ago,” and, “Virtually all Kenyans, from across the political and ethnic divides, want this constitution”.

The new constitution would restrict the president’s power, gives the people a bill of rights, gives more power to local governments and encourages land reform. However, the Kalenjin tribe claims that the new land reform would lead to the taxation and even seizure of their lands.

The last time a major vote was held (the Kenyan presidential election in 2007), violence left almost 1,500 people dead and over half a million displaced.