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Press Release 10-093
Gulf Oil Spill: NSF Awards Rapid Response Grant to Study Impact of Oil and Methane on Microbes

Scientists investigate oil and methane gas introduced by spill into deep, cold waters of Gulf of Mexico

Photo of oil spill in Gulf waters.

Researchers are studying the impact of the oil spill on microbes in Gulf waters and sediments.
Credit and Larger Version

June 2, 2010

To examine the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on microbes in the waters and sediments near the spill site, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a rapid response grant to marine scientist Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia (UGA) and colleagues.

The team is aboard the research vessel F.G. Walton Smith in the Gulf of Mexico on an oceanographic research cruise that will return to port this coming weekend.

The grant is one of many such Gulf oil spill-related rapid response grants NSF has awarded to date, and will make in the near future.

"The scientists involved in these efforts are a national asset through which we can gain an understanding of the ecosystem impacts of this vast oil spill," said Phillip Taylor, acting director of NSF's ocean sciences division.

"NSF is well-poised, with its rapid-response flexibility, to enable these researchers to help the large federal government response."

The release of oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident on April 20, 2010, is of greater magnitude and scope than any previous spill.

It's also unique as it has introduced both oil and methane gas into the deep, cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"So far, little attention has been given to the offshore oceanic impacts of the spill," said Joye.

The oil well riser, she said, is releasing substantial amounts of gas along with the oil.

"This combination of oil and gas could stimulate a broader microbial population," said Joye, "as well as potentially alter the distribution of the leaking material, possibly leading to more oil and gas pooling in deep waters and sediments."

A diverse microbial community thrives in the sediments and deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico.

"These microorganisms are used to 'seeing' low quantities of oil and gas, which come from natural seepage," she said.

"This spill is different because a very large amount of oil and gas is being introduced into a focused area. The microbial response to this sudden infusion is likely to be dramatic."

The scientists are focusing on a 5-mile area around the spill site, locating, tracking and chasing a large underwater plume.

The largest plume, estimated at more than 15 miles long, 5 miles wide and 300 feet thick at depths from 2,300 to 4,200 feet, is located south/southwest of Deepwater Horizon.

"This research is essential to assessing how massive amounts of oil will affect the health of the Gulf of Mexico in both the short- and long-term," said David Garrison, director of NSF's biological oceanography program.

Joye and other researchers are collecting samples of sediments, deepwaters and surface waters at 20 sites in the spill area.

The team is studying the factors regulating the activity of microbes in the water column, including nutrient availability, methane concentration, trace metals and vitamins, and the impact of oil on key microbial processes, including the oxidation of methane.

"It's critical to evaluate the pelagic and deep sediment impacts of the spill on microbial processes," said Joye.

This NSF grant is one of many Gulf oil spill-related rapid response awards made by the federal agency. NSF's response involves active research in social sciences, geosciences, computer simulation, engineering, biology, and other fields. So far, the Foundation has made more than 60 awards totaling nearly $7 million.

For more on the RAPID program, please see the RAPID guidelines.  See also a regularly updated list of RAPIDs targeting the Gulf oil spill response. Because RAPID grants are being awarded continuously, media can also contact Josh Chamot (jchamot@nsf.gov) in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs for the latest information on granted awards.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
Terry Hastings, UGA, (706) 542-5941, thasting@uga.edu

Related Websites
NSF-UGA rapid response team cruise blog: http://gulfblog.uga.edu/

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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A wake of oil is left behind an oceanographic research vessel.
A wake of oil is left behind an oceanographic research vessel ferrying scientists into the Gulf.
Credit and Larger Version

Scientists collecting water samples from the Gulf of Mexico.
To track the oil's effects, Joye and other scientists collect samples from the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit and Larger Version

Oceanographer holding an oily sample.
Oceanographers brave oily Gulf waters to obtain samples.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of an oil-soaked jellyfish.
Microbes aren't the only oil-soaked life: jellyfish and others are also affected.
Credit and Larger Version

Oil on the surface of the Gulf.
A huge plume of oil is visible; scientists believe it extends for miles underwater.
Credit and Larger Version

View of the Deepwater Horizon site and ships on the surface.
Researchers sample Gulf of Mexico waters near the Deepwater Horizon site.
Credit and Larger Version



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