A study led by UCSB earth scientists has uncovered single-celled organisms that devour oil sources under the sea floor.

This discovery provides scientists with opportunities to better understand and develop alternative methods for producing natural gas and for cleaning oil spills. Additionally, from the results, researchers have found explanations for the existence of poor quality crude oil reserves in regions around the world.

According to David Valentine, associate professor of Earth Sciences at UCSB, there is interest in studying the organisms due to their resilience and diet, which can be harnessed to develop new oil and gas technology. The single-celled creatures are currently being studied for better methods of natural gas production.

“There is certainly some work going on to harness the power of these [oil consumers],” Valentine said.

Additionally, Valentine said, the oil-consuming creatures are being studied for their potential to aid the environment after oil spills.

“There have been two aspects [of using the organisms],” Valentine said. “When there is an oil spill, people have tried to apply oil-eating organisms. This can help in some situations. … These organisms can be used better for [cleaning] a spill once the oil has settled into the sediment… [the organisms] can help pull out toxicity.”

According to Valentine, these oil-consuming organisms survive in extreme conditions that are difficult or impossible for most life forms to endure.

“The organisms live in extreme anaerobic conditions,” Valentine said. “High temperatures, high pressure, lots of toxic compounds around them, yet they slowly biodegrade the oil.”

Yet the organisms can hinder the oil extraction process. When they consume oil deposits, they biodegrade the crude oil to a lower quality state that causes problems in oil extraction processes, Valentine said.

When oil reserves have been partially decimated by these oil-eating organisms, crude oil may be extracted, but at much higher cost. Despite the additional expense, Valentine said this extraction process is being utilized more often as global crude oil prices continue to rise.

The organisms are therefore directly responsible for the low quality oil around Santa Barbara, Valentine said.

“Oil around here is largely poor quality, and [the organisms] are the reason why,” Valentine said. “A lot of [the reserve] has been partially eaten.”

However, the organisms can only exist in climates up to 85 degrees centigrade, sheltering deeper and hotter oil reserves – such as those found in the Middle East – from being devoured by the organisms, Valentine said.

According to Valentine, the study did not conclusively determine if the oil-consuming organisms produce toxic compounds. The crude oil they consume contains thousands of different compounds, and the organisms may only half metabolize the compounds within the crude oil – possibly causing the creation of dangerous compounds, Valentine said.

“They may produce toxic compounds from [their metabolism],” Valentine said. “We’re getting a better idea of what they consume.”