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'Opportunistic' Bacteria Feasting Slowly on Underwater Oil in Gulf

A new study confirming the existence of a massive plume of oil trapped deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico defies notions that bacteria, while they are degrading the oil, will make as quick work of petroleum lingering in the water's cold depths as they have on the surface.

In a widely hailed study published today in the journal Science, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found there was no "appreciable" surge in bacteria growth and oil consumption around a plume they traced near the well that exploded earlier this summer. The first published peer-reviewed study of the subsurface oil found a plume stretching over an area nearly the size of Manhattan.

Based on measurements taken in late June, the study confirms the existence of an invisible, finely diffused mile-wide swath of oil-infused water that snaked more than 20 miles southwest from the crippled BP PLC well, some 3,000 feet beneath the Gulf's surface. The plume may have stretched even farther, but the scientists had to cut short their late-June research journey in the face of hurricane threats before they found the end of the plume.

Along the plume, researchers did not find dissolved oxygen depleting at levels they anticipated, indicating that while bacteria growth was stimulated and likely degrading the oil, there was not a huge swell in microbial life. Bacterial growth can deplete undersea oxygen levels, creating "dead zones" that are harmful to other marine creatures.

"The overall result is that we did not see a marked oxygen draw-down in the plume location at the well," said Benjamin Van Mooy, a scientist who contributed to the report.

In measuring oxygen levels along the plume, researchers found oxygen decreasing "considerably faster" than one would expect at those depths but "considerably slower" than expected at the surface, Van Mooy said. It means it could take a long time to get to oxygen levels low enough to harm marine life but that it might also be a while before the plume disappears.

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