Oil-eating microorganisms were discovered off the shores of Santa Barbara, near Platform Holly, by a team of researchers that included UCSB biochemist David Valentine, the university announced Tuesday, September 30.
Although these organisms were already known to exist, the report’s major discovery was the realization of how many undersea oil compounds these single-celled organisms can consume: -1,000 out of the 1,500 traceable compounds - as well as their ability to do so without the presence of oxygen. Equally important was the discovery that natural gas was a byproduct of this oil consumption. This conversion has apparently been naturally occurring for thousands of years and is done so by certain organisms eating oil and transforming it into other products such as hydrogen, which is then consumed by other single-celled organisms and then converted by them into natural gas.
More so, using new diagnostic technology, scientists were able to discover that the composition of oil was more complex than previously known. New methods for oil analysis involve pushing it into a tube as thin as human hair but 180 feet long. This process enabling researchers to analyze compounds in one dimension. Out of the composites, these oil-eaters preferred to consume the lighter, gasoline portion of the petroleum, with the scraps of their meal being the thicker substance that emerges from the ocean floor as tar seepage.
On average, the microorganisms manage to eat about 100 barrels of petroleum per day. The microscopic creatures can and have been used to clean up oil spills before, but they are most effective in consuming the portions of spills that have already flowed onto the shore and are composed of thick sludge, rather than in slicks floating on the ocean’s surface.
The report is scheduled to be featured in the journal Environmental Science and Technology released October 1.