Aiding the Cleanup, Bacteria Feast on Gulf Coast Gases

Bacteria: "You guys eat the burgers, I'll just have some of the propane." (image: Kevin Trotman via flickr.com)

After the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico this spring, a few million barrels of crude oil came gushing into the water, along with plenty of hydrocarbon gases: propane, ethane, and mostly methane.

But unlike the crude cleanup, which has involved long hours of shovels and buckets and sifting machines, nature handled the gas. Like a high school football team at the Old Country Buffet, marine bacteria have quickly devoured the leaked gas, beating scientists’ expectations for how long their work would take.

An estimated 200,000 tons of gas leaked out from the rig. Microbes first ate up the larger molecules of propane and ethane. While little methane, which was by far the majority of the gas released, was expected to be digested much more slowly — perhaps over many years. This was not the case.

“The process was very speedy,” one oceanographer who studied the Gulf gas levels told the Christian Science Monitor this week. The methane decomposition rate was “faster than had ever been recorded in any other place on the planet.”

The bacteria’s quick work prevented a problematic methane leak, since the gas was consumed before it leaked into the atmosphere. The news has raised scientists’ hopes that the microbes can help absorb future undersea gas leaks.

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