Oil Leaking into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deep Ocean is Helping Marine Life Thrive

First Posted: Jan 26, 2016 08:09 AM EST

Oil in the ocean doesn't sound like a good thing-especially after something like the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, though, researchers have found that life thrives above natural oil seeps in the form of phytoplankton.

The oil itself doesn't seem to be helping the plankton. However, the low concentration of oil found above natural seeps isn't kill them, either. In addition, it seems as if the turbulence from the rising oil and gas bubbles from below brings deep-water nutrients that the phytoplankton need to grow.

"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, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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 researchers didn't just find phytoplankton in the area where oil was, though. They found that due to the increased nutrients, the patch of phytoplankton was about twice the size as populations that lived only a few kilometers away.

There are still many questions to be answered about this phenomenon, though. For example, scientists don't yet know which types of phytoplankton are thriving over seeps, or if some types of phytoplankton in the community are negatively affected. With that said, this study does highlight that at least some populations of phytoplankton benefit from the nutrients brought by rising oil.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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