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Bacteria Gobbling Natural Gas in the Gulf

While attention on the Gulf has mostly focused on oil, the explosion and spill also released tremendous amounts of natural gas. David Valentine, a microbial geochemistry professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his research team have been studying the behavior and distribution of these natural gases, their impacts on the ocean ecosystem and the bacteria that consumes them.

He is the lead author of a study on the subject being published Thursday by Science. He spoke to us while on the NOAA research vessel, Pisces.

Imagine plumes of natural gas deep under water, the type that don’t bubble up, but stay at certain depths due to the incredible pressures below. Researchers have taken measurements around the spill site and in these plumes in June, and now they are gathering more data to see how the bacteria that consume these gases are evolving, surviving and some cases thriving.

Some bacteria devour ethane and propane, which is what caused the initial oxygen loss in these waters. Researchers are looking for what they call the “boom and bust” cycle as bacteria bloom with an abundance of what feeds them — in this case gases — and die off when that gas is consumed and turned into a more complex hydrocarbon.

One of the questions is whether these bacteria will evolve in generations to develop a taste for higher order gases like Methane and perhaps the crude oil itself.

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