Posted by: zhak39 | June 5, 2010

Of Microbes and Men (and Women, Too)

Letter to a nun who is concerned about the Gulf disaster–

Good morning, Sister.

I had a good talk yesterday evening with a colleague from the USDA who develops and implements soil science for that agency.  He explained the action of microbes and oil clean up and told me a little of what has been done so far.  His group has been to the Gulf.  He is willing to share some of their internal emails as they are public record in order to confirm for you that they have been addressing this crisis within the structure of their agency and expertise.  These are  not summary reports, they are not at that stage yet.  Rather it is business reports showing their travel, that kind of thing.

There very well may be stockpiles of microbes in different areas that can be deployed to neutralize the oil.  These microbes do not belong to the government or to BP.  They would be property of whatever lab has been developing them.  They are not being withheld; they need to be  purchased then tested to verify their strain and the specific action that they can perform.  The NSF is already providing funds for that to happen.  You see, microbe X may just eat carbon chains while microbe Y snacks on complex carbohydrates.  In order to release microbes that will be effective, they need to be genetically tested to make sure they are an effective variety.  This is happening

Once the appropriate varieties are identified they can be released.  In order to be able to multiply and attack the problem they need other nutrients in order to survive while they are doing their work. Otherwise they will die in the water.  Basically, simplistically, they need sources of nitrites or fertilizer.  As well, the oil needs to be prepared so it is ingestible, snackable.

You may have heard that there have been suggestions to put human hair in the water to absorb the oil.  This sounds crazy but it is true.  Fibers put in the water will give the oil something to cling to and this will help locate the oil.  Fiber and the use of dispersants will make the oil itself located in an area and small enough that the microbes can find and begin to consume it.  But human hair is actually expensive and it wouldn’t do anything other than attract the oil.  The scientists have come up with a better idea.

My friend has a suggestion for you.  If you can reach a lot of people, there is something that each of us in just about any area of the country can do.  Gather grass clippings.  A lot of people fertilize their lawns so the fertilizer is already on the grass.  Grass is a fiber and a mass of complex carbohydrates.  Grass also is biodegradable.  Once in the water it will degrade naturally.  Grass clippings in massive quantities would create the mini-ecosystems that could launch and sustain the microbial efforts that would neutralize the oil spill.

Check this out–grassroots movement.  Get it?

So why is the government doing less or is less visible?  Because the federal government doesn’t ‘do,’ it pays for.  It moves money from one place to another.  The president isn’t a biological engineer; he is a bureaucrat.  When the NSF underwrites a study it doesn’t mean that a bunch of Ph.Ds are going on a site seeing tour to the marshes in the gulf to conclude, ‘I think we have a problem here.’  They are acting to develop a solution.  And this is happening.

I understand you are hearing from people in the gulf that are truly suffering.  They can become the base to receive the grass clippings.  Khema, you have connections all over this country, you have connections all over the world.  Besides your effort to encourage our government to move decisively in pressuring BP to clean up this mess, you are in a great position to help people become actively involved in the solution.

With kindness,



  1. mot sure I would believe anyone from the USDA. The new chief medical officer comer straight from Monsanto. And the old CMO is now our national director of food safety.

  2. Karen–I have a wide streak of cynicism when it comes to the propaganda federal agencies disseminate. Certainly, we all know the machinations of feds and corporations like Monsanto. The difference here is that the person reporting to me is not a big wig, not a wonk, not media shill. He is a scientist doing a scientist’s job both on the ground (fieldwork) and in his office (disseminating scientific information regarding specific aspects of the gulf environment).

    My daughter is interested in saving the environment. So she is going to college to study chemistry and toxicology. She is all for protection and protest. She just wants the information that people use when making an environmental statement or regulation to be accurate. Too often I hear people dismiss the good intentioned, well-researched and constructive efforts of people, agencies and, yes, even our government without checking the facts.

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