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Scientists want to use bacteria to clean up oil spills

In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – the largest offshore spill in US history. The spill caused widespread damage to marine species, fisheries, and ecosystems stretching from tidal marshes to the deep ocean floor.

Emergency responders used multiple strategies to remove oil from the Gulf: they skimmed it from the water’s surface, burned it and used chemical dispersants to break it into small droplets.

However, experts struggled to account for what had happened to much of the oil. This was an important question, because it was unclear how much of the released oil would break down naturally within a short time.

If spilt oil persisted and sank to the ocean floor, scientists expected that it would cause more extensive harm to the environment.

Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists had observed that marine bacteria were very efficient at removing oil from seawater. Therefore, many experts argued that marine microbes would consume large quantities of oil from the BP spill and help the Gulf recover.

In a recent study, we used DNA analysis to confirm that certain kinds of marine bacteria efficiently broke down some of the major chemical components of oil from the spill. We also identified the major genetic pathways these bacteria used for this process, and other genes, which they likely need to thrive in the Gulf.

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Water issues linger for residents after Olympics close

RIO DE JANEIRO — Helicopters were up at daybreak spotting rubbish flows at the Olympic sailing venue, with boats below collecting the debris.

Dozens of barricades dammed up streams that flushed garbage into the bay. They caught waterlogged sofas, Styrofoam cups and deflated soccer balls.

A sewer pipe at Marina da Gloria stopped raw sewage from being pumped into the harbor where Olympic boats were moored.

Rio de Janeiro’s water remains filthy as the Olympics wrap up, even after a final push to clean up the water for the world’s largest sporting event. Fans were reminded by the stench from a lagoon contaminated with raw sewage that abuts the Olympic Park.

Long after the athletes and fans leave, the city will continue to struggle with water teeming with bacteria and viruses.

Rio organizers promised in their 2009 bid document that the Olympics would drive a cleanup of Rio’s waters, pledging to treat 80 percent of the waste. Estimates vary, but most suggest the area is still treating less than 50 percent of its sewage.

For two weeks, Olympic athletes competing in the water largely avoided falling ill by building immunity to pathogens, using preventive measures, or by trying to limit contact with the water in water-based sports.

An independent study by The Associated Press conducted at sites around the city over more than a year — including the sailing venue in Guanabara Bay and the rowing venue in Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon — showed dangerously high levels of contamination.

In over 16 months of testing leading up to the games, there was no decline in the very high bacterial and viral levels in the water, underscoring that the cosmetic measures authorities took to make venues appear cleaner ultimately didn’t reduce the risks.

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August 20

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