Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gimme a glass of that with my fries

The Earth Sciences Division of Berkeley Lab has made some preliminary findings that there are little critters lurking in the depths of the ocean, at least the Gulf of Mexico, who, given a food source, reproduce like rabbits, feeding on the food source until it is depleted, or close to it.

Nothing too new in that concept. What's exciting is that these critters feed off oil, Black Gold, Texas Tea.

Their nom de plume? A new and unclassified species of deep-sea psychrophilic (cold temperature) gamma-proteobacteria.

Study shows deepwater oil plume in Gulf degraded by microbes August 24th
“This enrichment of psychrophilic petroleum degraders with their rapid oil biodegradation rates appears to be one of the major mechanisms behind the rapid decline of the deepwater dispersed oil plume that has been observed.”

Guambat characterized this study as a preliminary finding because it is not altogether clear to him that the studiers studied the actual in-situ oil plume, based on the following product marketing press release and press report from a company apparently "collaborating" with the study.

Pressure BioSciences, Inc. to Collaborate With the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the Analysis of Microorganisms in Oil Spills: Results Could Lead to Improved Strategies for Environmentally-Safe Clean-up SOUTH EASTON, Mass., Aug. 23, 2010 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) --
Pressure BioSciences, Inc. (Nasdaq:PBIO) ("PBI" and "the Company") today announced a collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory ("LBNL"). Scientists at LBNL are using the Company's pressure cycling technology ("PCT") platform in studies aimed at improving the analysis of microorganisms in environments with low biomass, such as oil reservoirs or deep sea oil plumes from oil spills. It is possible that improved microbe analysis may lead to better strategies for oil spill clean-up. LBNL's successful use of the Company's PCT-based products over the past few months has led to this collaboration.

Dr. Janet Jansson, Senior Staff Scientist in the Earth Sciences Division of LBNL, said: "The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in an enormous environmental catastrophe, necessitating an unprecedented clean-up effort. Multiple strategies have been used – including chemical dispersants, skimming, booms, and controlled burns. However, one of the most promising – and environmentally safest – strategies is to rely on natural microorganisms to degrade the oil before it can accumulate."

Dr. Jansson continued: "A team of scientists from LBNL has launched a major effort to collect samples from Gulf waters near the oil spill, to monitor the microbial degradation process and the potential for natural microbial clean-up of the oil. Due to the low number of microorganisms in these samples, LBNL scientists need to use the best, most sensitive sample preparation methods to analyze these important but challenging samples. To that end, we have chosen to use Pressure BioSciences' PCT-based products in this project, because they result in greater nucleic acid and protein yields from low concentrations of microorganisms, as compared to other methods."

Dr. Olivia Mason, a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Jansson's laboratory, commented: "In an effort to develop technologies that utilize indigenous microorganisms in enhancing oil recovery, we are using a systems biology approach to characterize the microbial communities associated with oil reservoirs. Similarly, we are attempting to characterize the microbial communities in a deep-sea oil plume, to determine their role in bioremediation, and to use this knowledge to develop effective strategies for future oil spill clean-ups. Such analysis requires the use of cutting-edge methods that allow for unprecedented insights into microorganisms that exist in very low concentrations in such environments. PBI's PCT-based products have been shown to significantly increase the yield of DNA and to extract a greater microbial diversity from such samples. Thus, they have become a sample preparation method of choice for our laboratory."

Dr. Nate Lawrence, Vice President of Marketing for PBI, said: "We are installing three additional NEP3229 PCT Sample Preparation Systems at LBNL under an initial, six-month reagent rental program, to be used alongside of their recently purchased NEP3229 PCT System. We will also support our colleagues at LBNL with advice based on our extensive experience in high pressure engineering and biology. The work they are doing is extremely important, and we are pleased and honored to be part of their program."

Dr. Lawrence concluded: "This collaboration is the result of a high quality PBI customer expanding the use of our PCT-based product line in a new and important area. We believe that there are many of other laboratories performing similar work to LBNL. Since oil spills will continue to occur, it is important for these labs to develop new, environmentally-sound, microorganism-based clean-up strategies. The credibility provided by our LBNL relationship and the PCT-based applications they have already shown are possible, is expected to provide additional sales opportunities in the near future."
Guambat intends no undue cynicism and impugns no scientific effort; indeed, he's quite thankful that this is proceeding as rapidly and apparently successfully as it has.

He just hopes that this does not end up in some patent lock-up that impedes other research in the field, because we need to find out all we can about this for so long as our carbon-based lives are going to be bound to carbon-based petroleum energy sources.

Like french fries and KFC.

Other reading:
Pressure BioSciences to help develop oil spill clean-up technology (Aug 23)

New bacteria degrades oil faster, in deep, cold water: study (Aug 25)
The Berkeley study attributed the faster than expected oil degradation in such cold water, in part, to "the nature of Gulf light crude, which contains a large volatile component that is more biodegradable."

Other accelerating factors, the scientists added, may have been the chemical dispersant Corexit used by BP at the source of the leak -- at 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) -- which broke up the oil into smaller particles, as well as the low overall concentrations of oil in the plume studied.

"In addition, frequent episodic oil leaks from natural seeps in the Gulf seabed may have led to adaptations over long periods of time by the deep-sea microbial community that speed up hydrocarbon degradation rates," they said.

The study also dispelled some oceanographers' fear that the oil bio-degradation would deplete oxygen levels in the water, creating so-called "dead-zones" where life cannot be sustained.

The Berkeley study found that oxygen saturation outside the plume was 67-percent while within the plume it was 59-percent.

The study published in the online edition of Science magazine contradicts the results of a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research published Friday by the same magazine that said oil degradation would be slower in the cold depths of the Gulf.

It also appears to refute a University of Georgia study from a week ago that said 80 percent the oil leaked into the Gulf was still drifting beneath the surface of the Gulf posing and slowly decomposing, posing a significant threat to ecosystems in the area.

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