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Oil-munching microbes cleaning up Gulf marshes faster than expected

Five years after Deepwater Horizon spill, BP-funded study points to ecological recovery along the coast

By
12:08pm, June 26, 2015

OIL SPOILS  In cores of sediment like this one pulled from a Louisiana marsh, researchers found busy microbes gobbling up oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill left the Gulf Coast’s vast and delicate marshlands in desperate need of cleaning. But soil microbes are on the job.

Since the spill, populations of oil-degrading microbes have boomed in some of Louisiana’s most heavily oiled marsh soils. These invisible-to-the-eye janitors are breaking down the goopy brown oil faster than expected, scientists report June 19 in Environmental Science & Technology. Although some researchers are skeptical of the data, the study hints at a relatively speedy ecological recovery.

“This has been an amazing microbial response,” says microbiologist Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, lead author of the study and a consultant for BP, the company that operated the Deepwater Horizon oil rig at the time of the spill. “Over 99 percent of the oil biodegraded in many of these marshes,” he says.

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