As oil continues to infiltrate the delicate marshlands along the Gulf coast, researchers from the University of Alabama are working to find out whether tiny microbes that eat oil could be used in the cleanup effort.
Unlike beaches, which can be cleaned with machines and manpower, marshes are too sensitive and inaccessible to be cleaned effectively by humans. Instead, the ecosystem must rely on microbes to do the job. Scientists are wondering whether they can make the microbes eat oil even faster by feeding them nutrient-rich food like shrimp to speed up their metabolism. They also fear that too much oil could kill the microbes and are conducting research to see whether that's the case.
University researchers aren't the only ones experimenting with the cleaning powers of microbes; BP, the company that is responsible for the Gulf oil spill, has also begun testing microbes in contained areas to see if they are effective against oil.
"They're going to be challenging as far as cleanup effort goes, because, unlike the beach environment, where maybe a truck could be driven over the beach and tar balls collected or the sheen washed, at the marsh ecosystems, it's nearly impossible to do that." - Behzad Mortazavi, University of Alabama
"We need to know what the system looked like before the initial impact. And, as it changes over time, are there microbial populations that came up that could potentially degrade the oil, or are they not responding over time? So, we have got to have that control." - Patricia Sobecky, department of biological sciences chair, University of Alabama
1. What are microbes?
2. What kinds of animals and plants live in marshes?
3. How does spilled oil affect plants and animals?
4. What do humans use oil for?
1. According to the video, why are scientists feeding the microbes nutrient-rich foods like shrimp? How could that help the cleanup effort?
2. Why do you think researchers from the University of Alabama are wary of introducing outside life forms to existing marshlands?
3. Why are oil-eating microbes not the perfect solution to oil contamination? What hurdles could prevent them from effectively cleaning the marshes?
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