The study provides insight into how natural oil seeps are interacting with plankton communities in deep waters.
Researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute have discovered something unusual in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They have found that tiny microbes known as plankton are thriving in the natural oil gushing out from the gulf.
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In the Gulf of Mexico, there are hundreds of natural oil seeps that leak millions of barrels of oil every year. The oil itself is not helping planktons or what they call the base of marine food chain to flourish, but the low concentrations of oil around seeps are not killing them either. The turbulence from the bursting oil and gas bubbles almost a mile is excavating and bringing up nutrients buried in the ocean floor that are required by planktons for their growth.
"This is the beginning of evidence that some microbes in the Gulf may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least at lower concentrations," said Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of the study.
"In this case, we clearly see these phytoplankton are not negatively affected at low concentrations of oil, and there is an accompanying process that helps them thrive. This does not mean that exposure to oil at all concentrations for prolonged lengths of time is good for phytoplankton.”
The is the first time when a study has shown a link between sea floor and the microbial processes in the upper ocean and provided a deep insight into how natural gas is interacting with microbes.
Researchers started to study interactions around natural oil seeps after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 when the oil spill drilling platform destroyed after huge explosion. Researchers wanted to better understand the effects of oil after these catastrophic gushers and how to prevent them in future.
After conducting several experiments, researchers found that no amount of oil on its own is safe for any type of plankton communities. “The direct effect of oil is usually negative, but in some cases small amounts of oil can be outweighed by the positive effect of the nutrients that are tagging along.”Andy Juhl, an aquatic ecologist at Lamont and co-author of the study.
The study is detailed but still many questions are left unanswered. For instance, what type of plankton thriving over the seeps or if there are some types that are negatively affected by the rising oil. Moreover, microbial life under the water is so complex that scientists cannot be too sure whether plankton community is increasing due to leaking oil or any bacteria on oil is causing them to thrive.
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Next, researchers will analyze the behavior of different types of planktons above the seeps in orders to get more idea about what is contributing to the rise of their communities.