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Harvard Scientists Study Methane in Deep Sea Brian Pools

By Omer Awan, Contributing Writer

In a recent study undertaken to explore the consumption of hydrocarbons in deep sea environments, two Harvard scientists discovered that microbes in the Gulf of Mexico are consuming methane up to a hundred times faster than previously thought.

Scott D. Wankel, research associate in earth and planetary sciences, and Peter Girguis, associate professor of the natural sciences, examined methane and other hydrocarbons in deep sea brian pools with the help of a newly designed instrument that enabled the researchers to collect samples in unfavorable conditions.

Brian pools are accumulations of fluids at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that are three or more times saltier than the ocean, according to Wankel. The biggest obstacle faced by the research team, he said, was the high pressures that existed in the brian pools.

“If we took samples and brought them back to the ship, it would be like champagne, bubbling because the concentration of the gases is so high,” Wankel said.

To overcome this obstacle, the research team designed a mass spectrometer which enabled them to conduct the study. This instrument, classified as a great technological advancement by Wanker, enabled the researchers to gain access to samples that were never previously examined.

According to Wankel, similar research can possibly enable researchers to understand how chemical processes are working inside such extreme environments.

“The ultimate goal in terms of environmental policy as a biogeochemist, as I will call myself, is to better understand globally processes that control things like the climate,” Wankel said.

When asked about how this research relates to the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Wankel emphasized the difference between the environment of the water affected by the oil spill and that of the extreme environments studied for his research.

“There has been some talk about the applications of our research to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” Wankel said. “These are very different environments.”

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