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The Latest on the Oil Spill

Bacteria & information lockdown? - Bacteria are the only hope for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP needs to let billions of hydrocarbon-chewing microbes loose in the gulf that that's probably what they plan to do: their reason for using over 800,000 gallons of chemical dispersants on the oil slick both above and below the surface is to break the oil into smaller droplets that the bacteria can more easily consume. Meanwhile there are scary first-person internet reports about an information lockdown in spill areas such as GrandIsle.

In Scientific American, David Biello quotes microbial ecologist Kenneth Lee as saying, "If the oil is in very small droplets, microbial degradation is much quicker. The dispersants can also stimulate microbial growth. Bacteria will chew on the dispersants as well as the oil."

But microbiologist Jay Grimes isn't so sure: He thinks that at this point, there are no man-made microbes that are more effective at cleaning up the mess than the naturally occurring ones. Biello quotes him as saying, "Microbes are available now but they are not effective for the most part."

He quotes oceanographer Chris Reddy as saying, "Microbes are a lot like teenagers, they are hard to control. The concept that nature will eat it all up is not accurate, atleast not on the time scale we're worried about."

No matter what happens, the oil will be around for a long time to come. Biello quotes microbiologist Ronald Atlas as saying, "Much of the real tar or asphalt compounds are not readily subject to microbial attacks. Tar tends to persist. Asphalt tends to persist."

And biogeochemist David Valentine says, "We wouldn't make roads out of [it] if the bacteria ate them."

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