Scientists have discovered a large and unique colony of the oil-eating bacteria at the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest part of the Earth’s ocean.
Similar kinds of bacteria have been used to help deal with oil spills – such as during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 – but the new research reveals that the Mariana Trench is home to the greatest concentration of these life forms anywhere yet found.
The 1,500-mile ocean trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean, reaches depths of more than 11,000 metres.
As a result, voyaging to the bottom of the trench is hazardous and expensive, and only a few expeditions have investigated the organisms inhabiting this ecosystem.
“Our research team collected samples of the microbial population found at the deepest part of the Mariana Trench,” explains Dr Jonathan Todd, from the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences.
“After studying them we identified a new group of hydrocarbon degrading bacteria.
“Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that are made of only hydrogen and carbon atoms, and they are found in many places, including crude oil and natural gas.”
“Essentially, the bacteria eat compounds similar to those in oil and then use it for fuel.
“Similar microorganisms play a role in degrading oil spills in natural disasters such as BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We found that this bacteria is really abundant at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.”
In order to understand the source of the hydrocarbons ‘feeding’ the bacteria, the team analysed samples of seawater taken at the surface, and all the way down through the water column to the sediment at the bottom of the trench.
They found that hydrocarbons exist as deep as 6,000m below the surface, and probably derived from ocean surface pollution.
“To our surprise, we identified biologically produced hydrocarbons in the ocean sediment at the bottom of the trench.
“This suggests that a unique microbial population is producing hydrocarbons in this environment.
“These hydrocarbons, similar to the compounds that constitute diesel fuel, have been found in algae at the ocean surface but never in microbes at these depths.”
It’s believed that the hydrocarbons may help microbes survive the crushing pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
They may also be acting as a food source for other microbes, which consume any pollutant hydrocarbons that happen to sink to the ocean floor.
The full research can be found at: http://bit.ly/2UfQOI5