In April 2010, one of the worst environmental disasters in human history took place when an explosion rocked the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform.
11 people were killed, and more than 4 million barrels of oil were released from a well 1 mile below sea level.
In an effort to mitigate the damage caused, millions of barrels of oil-dispersing chemicals were poured into the affected area.
However, as so often seems to be the case, it’s mother nature herself that is more effectively fixing up the damage caused.
A new kind of naturally-occurring underwater bacteria has been discovered, and it appears to be eating its way through the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Don’t feel too useless though, humans, as the oil-dispersing chemicals are believed to have helped the bacteria in their unenviable task in a couple of ways.
First, the droplets the oil was forced to form were less buoyant and so unable to float to the surface, away from the bacteria.
Second, the oil being in separate droplets meant more surface area available for the bacteria to work on.
These two factors together meant the big clouds of tiny droplets that were suspended at depth were easy pickings for the microbes who chow down on it.
Previous research had suggested the chemicals were hindering the ability of the bacteria to work on the oil but, thankfully, it now seems the opposite has been true all along.
The discovery is particularly (and also sadly) interesting for the insight it gives in tackling any future oil spills.
Laboratory simulations have identified the bacteria, called Candidatus Bermanella macondoprimitus, and its genes responsible for degrading various components of oil.
Researchers believe this could mean being able to identify the oil-degrading gene in any microbe.
This would be invaluable information in dealing with any similar future disasters, as the work would have to be done by bacteria already present in the area; the microbes tackling the Deepwater Horizon spill, for example, cannot just be transplanted in.
Gary Andersen, a microbial ecologist at the University of California and senior author of the Deepwater Horizon bacteria study, suggests oil prospectors use the findings to prepare for the worst case scenario.
“They should be looking everywhere they are drilling for oil, and doing these types of simulations to see what the natural oil-degrading organisms would be and how quickly they would degrade oil,” he told CNBC.
In other words, having a strategy in place that allows the most effective naturally-occurring native bacteria to tackle any spillages.
As for the area around Deepwater Horizon today, Andersen says it’s difficult to be sure just how much oil remains in the ocean.
While surface oil is degrading more slowly, there are no visible signs of any oil deeper down.
“The actual marine life has recovered well from that spill, and fishing has resumed, so it has improved,” Andersen said.
Again, when it comes to cleaning up her children’s mess, it seems mother nature knows best.