Oil-eating bacteria; topic at conference of scientists in Biloxi

By Steve Phillips – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Scientists from around the world are at a conference in Biloxi, studying bacteria. Among the hot topics: The bio-degradation of crude oil.

More specifically, they discussed how natural bacteria helped break-down the oil in the gulf from the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The conference includes some heavy-hitters in the world of science, including Dr. Rita Colwell who served as head of the National Science Foundation under Presidents Clinton and Bush.

"Vibrios in the Environment" is the name of the conference. Vibrios is something of a Jeckyl and Hyde bacteria, the worst strain causes cholera, while another type helped gobble up the oil in the gulf.

"We depend really on the micro organisms to break down the oil threats spilled in the environment," said Dr. Colwell, as she addressed the group Friday morning.

Scientists from across the globe are learning more about "vibrios".

"We have about 300 people attending the conference representing 31 countries. Today is the final session and we are going to talk about the bacteria and how they decompose petroleum," said Dr. Jay Grimes, a University of Southern Mississippi research scientist who co-chaired the conference.

In the wake of the BP spill, you'll recall there were numerous proposals from people who had a special "bacteria" they claimed could efficiently eliminate the oil.

Dr. Ron Atlas, who studied the Exxon Valdez spill, said it may work in the lab, but the Gulf of Mexico is something entirely different.

"No test in the field has ever established the efficacy of adding bacteria to an oil spill to remove the oil. We've had the EPA conduct extensive experiments in Alaska. They could not demonstrate efficacy," Dr. Atlas explained.

But natural bacteria in the gulf, including vibrios, are well equipped to do away with oil.  After all, the Gulf of Mexico has more natural oil seeps than anywhere in the world.

"The equivalent of two Exxon Valdez spills, or 400 thousand barrels of oil a year, from natural seeps. So, the bacteria are naturally adapted to it. And this has been going on for millions of years. So, they have the ability to degrade the oil, and we showed that.

"They respond almost immediately," said Dr. Terry Hazen, who heads the ecology department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Dr. Rita Colwell studied the Metula oil spill at the southern tip of South America in the mid 1970's.

She said the really tough Deepwater Horizon question that still needs answering is, "where is the oil and has it been fully degraded?"

"There are these very complicated components that are probably still hanging around. In fact, there are some very tough to degrade components that we use to pave roads, to give you an idea how persistent they would be. So I'd like to know if we've really removed all the oil," she said.

DMR director, Dr. Bill Walker, was part of a panel discussion about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon.

He said perception about gulf seafood remains a nagging problem.

Dr. Walker said many restaurants and buyers in major markets around the country are still refusing to buy gulf seafood, despite the fact that it's safe and is being tested now more than ever.

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