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Dispersants: Scientists, EPA study impact

Santa Barbara (Global Adventures): To study the degradation of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident and better understand the impacts dispersants may have on the environment, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a rapid response grant to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Dispersants are being sprayed aerially and added at the sea-floor, and the total usage is likely to exceed one million gallons before this is over,” says David Valentine. Previous research has shown mixed effects, however, of these surfactants on degradation of oil. Little is known about the effects on the ability of microbes that live in the Gulf to naturally degrade the hydrocarbon compounds found in crude oil.

Lisa P. Jackson,

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, and Mary Landry, United States Coast Guard Rear Admiral, said during a press conference call EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard are taking steps that could reduce the volume of dispersants applied in the Gulf. While we do know dispersants are less toxic and shorter-lived than the oil. So much remains unknown about their impact on the environment when used in these unprecedented volumes. What the monitoring data indicates so far is that the underwater use of dispersants is effective at breaking up the oil. After this point, does not seem to have had any significant impacts on aquatic life.

While many microbes eat oil, each does so with a different preference for which compounds they attack. Many microbes also produce their own unique surfactants to help corral the oil into a preferred form. Researchers now try to understand how the dispersants added to the spill will interact with natural compounds produced by microbes. How this will impact the ability of different microbes to break down the oil.

This research will use a combination of chemical and biological tools to track changes in the composition of the oil, changes in the microbes in the Gulf. So changes in the amount of surfactant present, to determine the impact of these dispersants on oil biodegradation, says Don Rice, program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. Which funded the rapid response award.

The scientists

are acquiring samples of fresh slick oil from near the Deepwater Horizon wellhead; weathered slicks from the offshore environment; and beach tar samples. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria differ in their substrate preferences, as well as in their response to surfactants. Which will play an important role in determining the rate and extent of bio-degradation of the oil spill.

“We’re researching this real-world spill, by simultaneously investigating oil composition, the microbes, and the dispersants,” Valentine says. “We think the dispersants may impact the microbes through interference with the action of their natural dispersants.”

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gbusa

Chief Editor at Global Adventures Magazine

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