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Scientists Turn to Microscopic Bacteria for Help With Spreading Oil

As the large amounts of oil continue to foul the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have begun using microbes to help clean affected marshlands. Tom Bearden reports.

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    The Obama administration asked a federal appeals court this afternoon to reinstate a moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. A federal judge threw out the moratorium last month.

    Meanwhile, as the massive cleanup continues, some scientists are looking to microscopic bacteria to help get rid of the oil.

    "NewsHour" correspondent Tom Bearden reports from coastal Alabama.


    Wading around in a salt marsh on the Alabama coast on a hot July day collecting water and mud samples isn't a lot of fun.

    These researchers from the University of Alabama tolerate it because they're trying to figure out whether science can help nature deal with the influx of oil that's expected to hit this marsh any day now. The BP spill may be killing marsh grasses all over the coast, but it's a potential buffet table for some varieties of microbes.

    And it's those microbes, naturally occurring bacteria that actually eat oil, that these scientists want to study.

    Patricia Sobecky is the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences.

    PATRICIA SOBECKY, department of biological sciences chair, University of Alabama: We got this project going about a — I guess about a month or so ago. We wanted to get a baseline of the salt marsh and the water column microbial populations before any oil impact had come in, maybe some physical manipulations.

    But 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.


    These are the same organisms that are responsible for natural decay in the environment. They're critical, because marshes, which are nurseries for fisheries, can't be cleaned up mechanically, the way beaches can. But the microbes might be able to do much of that job by themselves.

    Behzad Mortazavi is a marine scientist.

    BEHZAD MORTAZAVI, University of Alabama: 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, pressure-washed, at the marsh ecosystems, it's nearly impossible to do that.


    Mortazavi wants to find out if science can help the microbes grow faster and eat the oil more quickly if they feed them, like shrimp, for one example, to speed up their metabolism.


    We would like to supplement these microbes with organic matter, basically giving them a vitamin pill to accelerate the metabolism of these bacteria, to enhance their growth rate, and, along with that, potentially enhance the degradation of the oil.


    They also want to see if too much oil might kill the microbes outright.

    Dr. Robert Martinez, a postdoctoral fellow on the project, wants to see if the oil, the hydrocarbons, start crowding out other food supplies.

    DR. ROBERT MARTINEZ, University of Alabama: That is the biggest problem. Once you have a change in the environment, with these hydrocarbons coming in, they have a different food source. So, will they deplete other nutrients that they need and kind of slow down?

    So, we want to make sure that they keep that pace up and degrade the contaminants as rapidly as possible.


    Mortazavi is particularly concerned about weathered oil, the heavy clumps that have washed up on many beaches. It's likely to wind up here, too.


    We are interested in this specific example, where there's going to be a lot of weathered oil, oil that's been leaking and been at the surface of the ocean for 40, 70 days, and that has gone through some of the initial degradation process. A lot of the volatiles have been lost from the oil. And what remains mixed with the dispersants? You know, it — how degradable that material is, it's a question that needs to be answered.


    Some commercial companies think the answer might lie in taking microbes from many different environments, strengthening them, and releasing them where needed. BP is now testing what a company named Ultratech calls its microbe consortium in a contained area to see how it works.

    Mortazavi is leery of introducing outside life-forms, so his team is concentrating on the organisms that are here naturally. At the end of the day, the University of Alabama team puts its samples in coolers for the four-hour drive back to their lab in Tuscaloosa. They hope to find something that will supercharge this area's microbes.

    But these scientists caution, what works in this marsh might not work everywhere.