Gulf of Mexico can ‘self-deep-clean’
New details have emerged about “self-cleaning” effects in the Gulf of Mexico witnessed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Researchers reporting at the American Chemical Society conference revealed details of a cascade of micro-organisms that spring into action to degrade oil. Research has also outlined how chemical “dispersants” used in clean-up efforts actually frustrate these processes.
However, the long-term effects of the weeks of oil exposure remain unknown. Concern was expressed about the ultimate resilience of the Gulf. Terry Hazen of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been studying oil-degrading microbes in greater and greater detail since the disaster, even discovering some that had never been seen before.
They can break down the long-chain carbon-based “alkane” molecules present in oil – and in isolated conditions will even move towards oil. “They’re really oil-seeking missiles,” he told the meeting. In a sense, it is no surprise that the seas should host oil-hungry microbes; natural seeps from the ocean floor have been releasing oil into the world’s waters for millions of years.