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Environment

Oil-Leak Methane Consumed By Bacteria

Methanotrophic bacteria made quick work of methane stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

by Jyllian N. Kemsley
January 10, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 2

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Credit: Elizabeth Crapo/NOAA
Kessler extracts water from a deep-sea collector to look for CH4, O2, and microbes.
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Credit: Elizabeth Crapo/NOAA
Kessler extracts water from a deep-sea collector to look for CH4, O2, and microbes.

It took a little while for methanotrophic bacteria to gear up to consume methane spilled along with the oil after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last year. But once the bacteria got started, they made quick work of the job, reports a group led by John D. Kessler of Texas A&M University and David L. Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199697). Methane was the single most abundant hydrocarbon released in the oil spill. Based on CH4 concentrations and oxidation rates measured around the wellhead last June, the researchers expected that the CH4 would remain in the water for years. When the group returned to the Gulf at the end of August, however, CH4 concentrations had dropped to ambient levels. The researchers found a microbial community that included 5–36% methanotrophic bacteria, which were not detected in earlier microbial assays. They also found low concentrations of dissolved O2, which would have been used up as the microbes oxidized CH4 to CO2. Large, natural CH4 releases in the geologic past may have been at least partially consumed by a similar bacterial response, the researchers suggest.

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Credit: David Valentine
An array of water-collection bottles is recovered from the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill.
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Credit: David Valentine
An array of water-collection bottles is recovered from the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill.
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