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Propane Respiration Jump-starts Microbial Decomposition of Oil Released from Deepwater Horizon

Study allowed researchers to predict how the oil plumes would evolve in the months after well was sealed 

Scientists have uncovered that microbes already present in the Gulf of Mexico rapidly consumed ethane and especially propane following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This short-term response may have primed the microbial community to diversify, essentially "jump-starting" the breakdown of other components in the mixture of petroleum compounds released.

The NSF-funded study gave scientists a basic understanding of the chemical and microbiological processes active in contaminated waters in the Gulf-the ninth largest body of water in the world and a critical ecosystem in ecological as well as economic terms. The study also allowed researchers to predict how the oil plumes would evolve in the months after the well was sealed.

One of the major questions confronting scientists and environmental managers faced with an oil spill is whether or not the ecosystem can respond quickly to ameliorate the contamination. This research project, partly funded by an NSF "Rapid Response Grant," revealed the interplay between bacteria, the hydrocarbons they respired and oxygen decline in the deep water. The volatile hydrocarbons propane and ethane--which, along with methane, are major components of natural gas--were preferentially used by microbes in the early days following the collapse of the oil rig. Microbial respiration driven by propane and ethane accounted for as much as 70 percent of the water column oxygen depletion.

The scientists worked at the site of the ongoing disaster, using the NSF research vessel Cape Hatteras.

 

Images (1 of )

  • Recovery of water samples
  • Collecting water samples at site of Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Scientists abourd the Research Vessel Cape Hatteras collect water samples for analysis of natural gas, oil, bacteria and dissolved oxygen, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
David L. Valentine, UCSB
Permission Granted
Scientists aboard the Research Vessel Cape Hatteras collect water samples for analysis of natural gas, oil, bacteria and dissolved oxygen, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
David L. Valentine, UCSB
Permission Granted

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