Microbes May Have Eaten Methane From BP Spill

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Scientists have identified unusually hungry microbes living at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that eat methane. Methane was a big part of the Gulf oil spill, and it's possible that these microbes ate some of it. The research also could help scientists understand climate change, since methane is a big contributor to warming.


We've reported on the oil-eating microbes that seem to be feasting on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, scientists have found a new kind of fuel- eating microbe in the ocean. These are methane eaters and they may have played a part in consuming some of the hydrocarbon gas that spewed into the Gulf.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has the details.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: These microbes live around sea-bottom lakes of very salty water. The lakes are surrounded by regular seawater but they pretty much stay put.

Biologist Peter Girguis has studied these lakes for years.

PETER GIRGUIS: When you go to the seafloor you'll actually see this lake of briny water on the ocean floor. And if you touch it, it has waves just like any other lake, you might imagine. So they're pretty cool.

JOYCE: They're also full of methane, a hydrocarbon gas found in coal mines and below the seafloor. The pools are inhospitable, but Girguis says there's plenty of life, including the microbes, around them.

GIRGUIS: We actually see these mussels, kind of like the mussels you might eat, that happen to be symbiotic with methane-eating microbes. And they form a really large ring around these brine pools.

JOYCE: It's the methane-eating microbes near these pools, specifically their huge appetites, that intrigue Girguis. He says these microbes may have eaten some of the methane that escaped from the Macondo Well, along with all the oil.

GIRGUIS: We've dumped an awful lot of hydrocarbons into the ocean over a very short period of time. Is it likely that the microbes will eventually degrade all of that and it will go all away? Yeah. So the ultimate question, in a sense, is how fast will that happen?

HEADLEE: Girguis says these microbes are capable of eating methane up to 100 times faster than scientists have seen before. Girguis published his study of the microbes in the journal "Deep Sea Research II."

The key caveat here, is that although these microbes are happy and hungry next to the brine pools, they might not be in the oil and gas plumes from the BP well, or away from the mussels they live with. Girguis, at Harvard University, hopes to find out about that when he goes back to the Gulf next month.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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