Study: Oil-Eating Bacteria Mitigated Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Researcher says Deepwater Horizon spill was quickly cleaned with help of naturally occurring bacteria.

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Naturally-occurring bacteria may have mitigated much of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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Oil-eating bacteria that are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico may have prevented the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill from being more catastrophic, according to new research discussed Monday.

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According to some estimates, the spill pumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months, but within several weeks of being plugged, many areas of the Gulf were oil free. According to University of Tennessee researcher Terry Hazen, the Gulf has a "greater-than-believed" ability to clean itself up after an oil spill. He presented his research Monday at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in New Orleans.

"The bottom line from this research may be that the Gulf of Mexico is more resilient and better able to recover from oil spills than anyone thought," Hazen said in a statement. "It shows that we may not need the kinds of heroic measures proposed after the Deepwater Horizon spill, like adding nutrients to speed up the growth of bacteria that breakdown oil, or using genetically engineered bacteria. The Gulf has a broad base of natural bacteria, and they respond to the presence of oil by multiplying quite rapidly."

The Gulf has such plentiful oil-eating bacteria because of natural seeps that occur—each year, as many as 1.4 million barrels of oil enter the gulf from the Earth's crust. Over the years, bacteria have evolved to consume certain oil components. After the spill, Hazen says there was a boom in the oil-eating bacteria population.

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"The fact is, for millions of years you have had a million barrels of oil a day going into the Gulf of Mexico from natural seeps—it's encouraged [the evolution] of organisms that have the ability to degrade," he says.

Hazen told U.S. News that there may still be ongoing environmental impacts from the spill, which killed 11 people after the rig sunk, devastated the Gulf economy for months as engineers attempted to plug the spill and killed thousands of animals. BP was ordered to pay more than $4.5 billion in damages related to the spill.

"We don't know what the overall effects will be—the bacteria and the plankton and fish were swimming through oil and oil droplets for weeks," he says. "We don't know what the effect will be but it probably wasn't good."

[PHOTOS: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill]

Hazen says the population boom of oil-eating bacteria may have also caused a similar increase in the number of plankton, which could have further reaching effects up the food chain. While scientists are working on that question, he says the spill would have been worse if it had occurred in another body of water. Though oil-eating bacteria have been found in other oceans, the Gulf's bacteria seem to degrade oil faster than other species.

"We should certainly be worried about how resilient they will be—there could be a tipping point somewhere that overwhelms the gulf's ability to clean itself up," he says.

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