Natural Gas May Have Pushed Oil-Eating Bugs

In this undated image provide by the journal Science, microbes degrade oil, indicated by the circle of dashes, in the deepwater plume from the BP oil spill in the Gulf, as documented in a study by Berkeley Lab researchers. The newly discovered type of oil-eating microbe, which is suddenly flourishing in the Gulf of Mexico, was discovered by scientists studying the underwater dispersion of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf following the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. (AP Photo/Science/AAAS) NO SALES. AP Photo/Science/AAAS

Oil-eating bacteria that suddenly flourished in the Gulf of Mexico following the oil spill may have gotten a jump start from natural gas, scientists say.

While the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon well resulted in a massive oil spill, there was also a less noted release of natural gases such as propane and ethane, researchers note in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.

In shallow water the gas would bubble up and escape into the air, but because the well was so deep the high pressure caused the gases to rise slowly and some dissolved into the water.

Bacteria that eat hydrocarbons began ingesting those gases, which could have primed them to become more active and attack the more complex oil released into the water, according to a team led by David L. Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Their report is based on deep water samples taken at 31 locations around the Gulf between June 11 and 21, and do not reflect the current state of the Gulf oil spill.

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