Oil for Food - Microbe Style

Yesterday on Marketplace, there was a great piece by Alex Chadwick on the fate of all the oil released during the BP oil spill two years ago.

Oil is a product of organic matter that was deposited many, many years ago. It's gone through many, many changes deep in earth under high pressure, high temperature -- but fundamentally it's an organic material.

This is hard to grasp. Oil is food, an organic buffet for microbes. So, two years ago, when the BP oil plumed in the water, very soon the bacteria plumed, too. Different kinds in different parts of the ecosystem -- deep water, shallow, shoreline. But they all eat oil, and a lot of it, and quickly.

Back in November 2010, Heather Dipti wrote about some of these bug and how they were prospering, but one thing always bugged me about that. Where did these bugs come from? The hydrocarbons in oil are nothing like those produced in the biosphere, so how did those bacteria just happen to have the right enzymes to break them down?

My ignorance of deep sea ecosystems is on full display here - it turns out that nearly million barrels of oil naturally seeps out of the sea floor every year. No microbe population worth its salt would let that energy bonanza go to waste, and it seems that deep sea microbes have been evolving with oil in there environment for a long time. After the BP spill, these populations bloomed, and are still busily breaking down all that oil for food - perhaps as much as 40% by the time it's all said and done.

The whole piece is well produced, I'm really looking forward to more of Alex Chadwick's new energy reporting project, "Burn."

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Sounds interesting. Is, "Marketplace," a TV show? If so, I've never heard of it. Are episodes available on DVD? Or online?

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 20 Apr 2012 #permalink

I wonder were the bacteria get nutrients not present in the oil. Are non-oil nutrients the limiting factors for oil eating bacteria growth? May years ago I talked with a bacteriologist who was working on oil eating bacteria. He said providing nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, in the marine environment was a problem. That it was easy to create an algal bloom instead of boosting bacterial growth.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 20 Apr 2012 #permalink

@ Mike - That like I posted should take you too their website. It's a daily public radio program that discusses business and financial news. I listen to every episode (via podcast).

@ Jim - That's a great question, but I imagine that you're right. In general, bacteria are far more metabolically diverse than we are, so they can synthesize a lot of the basic building blocks of life from simple organic components, but there's no way to turn a carbon source into a phosphorous source. Unfortunately, I can't answer you specifically - ocean ecology is not my forté.