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Natural gases, not oil, helped jump-start the growth of microbial blooms that are consuming the various hydrocarbons spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to new research. Biogeochemist David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues tracked at least four distinct plumes of these gaseous hydrocarbons during a June research cruise—not just the one plume reported previously by a separate team of scientists....
What impact that may be having on creatures beyond the bacteria, ranging from microscopic zooplankton to the massive sperm whales that feed at these depths, remains to be discovered. But it's clear that the microorganisms are having an outsized impact on the fate of spilled oil itself, eating hydrocarbons and sending oil drifting to the seafloor to coat sediments there. The resulting material on the bottom includes heavier and undigested oil, such as tar balls, as well as globules of dead bacteria, their excretions and the hydrocarbon molecules these agglomerations pick up on the way down.
The Deepwater Horizon event resulted in suspension of oil in the Gulf of Mexico water column because the leakage occurred at great depth. The distribution and fate of other abundant hydrocarbon constituents, such as natural gases, are also important in determining the impact of the leakage, but are not yet well understood. From 11 to 21 June 2010, we investigated dissolved hydrocarbon gases at depth using chemical and isotopic surveys and on-site biodegradation studies. Propane and ethane were the primary drivers of microbial respiration, accounting for up to 70% of the observed oxygen depletion in fresh plumes. Propane and ethane trapped in the deep water may therefore promote rapid hydrocarbon respiration by low-diversity bacterial blooms, priming bacterial populations for degradation of other hydrocarbons in the aging plume.