OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs is well positioned and qualified to conduct scientific research on the impact of the BP oil spill.
Scientists across several disciplines have numerous oil-related studies underway and additional experiments pending.
Many of the questions about the impact of the oil spill will take years to answer, especially when considering potential long term effects on the eco system.
As one scientist at GCRL said, understanding the health of the Gulf of Mexico is a complex challenge in the best of times. And a deep water well, gushing oil, was definitely "not" the best of times.
We've seen the visual countless times: aerial shots from the oil spill and a colorful chemical gumbo of oil and dispersant covering the gulf waters near the well head.
Dr. Joe Griffitt is studying just how toxic such a mixture might be and how it will impact what lives in the gulf.
"We do a lot of in-lab based work. We'll take organisms, we'll expose them to defined concentrations, in this case, it's different types of oil. And then we'll look at how it effects organisms at cellular and molecular levels and how that extrapolates out to say, reproductive effects," said Dr. Griffitt.
The timing and location of the oil spill raise special concern.
"It occurred at a time when a lot of organisms were actively reproducing or spawning. And those are generally considered to be very, very sensitive life stages of most of these organisms. And it actually has the potential for exposure, even if it's only a very short exposure, to these critical life stages and have effects that you won't see until they're adult, reproductively active," he said.
Measuring the impact of oil and/or dispersant on even a single species is tremendously complex.
"We're looking at the effects of the crude oil, the crude dispersed oil, the weathered oil, the dispersed oil and different combinations. Dispersant alone. Oil alone. It gets very quickly to be a very different, complex matrix of stressors that we have to look at," the scientist explained, "And that's not even taking into account the different concentrations of these, and different time periods, and different species, and different life stages. So, you can see how complex it gets."
"These are bacteria growing on the surface of an auger plate," said Dr. Jay Grimes, as he showed visitors around his lab.
Dr. Grimes is studying the microbial degradation of oil; especially how Mother Nature breaks it down.
"I think I'm safe in saying now that the oil plumes in the water are gone. They're gone for a couple of reasons. Some of those plumes have risen to the top and evaporated and gone into the atmosphere. My personal feeling, based on what I've read, the little amount of work that we've done, is that there are microbes out there that have in large part decomposed dispersed plumes," said Dr. Grimes, a professor of marine micro biology.
"We're developing our DNA gene probes in this little plastic cylinder," he said, pointing to lab equipment.
Dr. Grimes is especially interested in a pathogen called "vibrios", the best known of which causes cholera.
But a lesser known vibrios, found in gulf waters, can gobble up oil.
"We can definitely say that at least six of the vibrios that came from the Deepwater Horizon site possess the dioxigenes gene that's necessary to decompose a group of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic and toxigenic. So, these are the very bad chemicals in crude oil. And they're of great interest to us," said Dr. Grimes.
Dr. Griffitt says the scientific research on the "impact" of the oil spill is a long term process that is just getting started.
He said answering some of the questions will take years, if not a decade.