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    Pacific Professor, Grad Student Involved in Oil-Eating Bacteria Discovery in Gulf

    Aug 30, 2010

    The giant oil plume in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP oil rig explosion has disappeared. Pacific Professor William Stringfellow and graduate student Chelsea Spier are two members of a group of scientists who think they know where it went.

    Professor William StringfellowStringfellow, an environmental engineer, and Spier, an engineering graduate student, were on a team that analyzed oil-contaminated water samples taken from the region near the BP oil well disaster. The group analyzed what effects the oil is having on oxygen levels and microorganisms that live in the Gulf-Coast region.

    What the team found was a pleasant surprise - the existence of a new ocean-dwelling "bug" or bacteria that eats oil. The bacteria population has significantly increased, feasting on a smorgasbord of spilled oil.

    These sea creatures along with previously known organisms that eat oil can account for the seemingly miraculous disappearance of oil from the Gulf despite being saturated by one of the worst oil spills in deep-water drilling history.

    The oil spill research team was headed up by Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist with Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division and principal investigator with the Energy Biosciences Institute. As part of Hazen's team, Stringfellow and Spier measured hydrocarbon concentrations, estimated biodegradation rates, and analyzed the nutrients in the water, including the amount of nitrogen, phosphates and iron. Their paper was published this month in the journal Science.

    Stringfellow is director of the Ecological Engineering Research Program at Pacific. He also conducts research on water quality in the San Joaquin Valley and has a joint appointment with the Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley.

    He received his bachelors in Environmental Health from the University of Georgia in 1980 and his master's in Microbial Physiology and Aquatic Ecology from Virginia Tech in 1984. He received his Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences and Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994 and worked as a post-doctoral Fellow in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Stringfellow is the lead author on more than 25 journal publications, and more than 40 government reports, and has made hundreds of presentations on the subjects of water quality, water treatment, and the microbiology of engineered systems. He has more than 20 years of research and consulting experience in both the U.S. and Europe.

    Graduate Student Chelsea SpierSpier is a 2006 graduate of Pacific's School of Engineering and Computer Science. She currently works as the lab manager for the Ecological Engineering Research Program and this year entered Pacific's Environmental Engineering Graduate Program. She was published earlier this year in "Agricultural Drainage Ditches: Mitigation Wetlands for the 21st Century" for her research on water quality changes in agricultural drains. She also has presented at numerous conferences. Spier currently serves as president of the San Joaquin Valley Section of Society for Women Engineers.