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Research  Winter 2011
oil spill research

Scientists Find Methane Gas Concentrations Have Returned to Near-Normal Levels in Gulf

Calling the results "extremely surprising," researchers from UC Santa Barbara and Texas A&M University report that methane gas concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico have returned to near normal levels only months after a massive release occurred following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Findings from the research study, led by oceanographers John Kessler of Texas A&M and David Valentine of UC Santa Barbara, were published in Science Xpress, in advance of their publication in the journal Science. The findings show that Mother Nature quickly saw to the removal of more than 200,000 metric tons of dissolved methane through the action of bacteria blooms that completely consumed the immense gas plumes the team had identified in mid- June. At that time, the team reported finding methane gas in amounts 100,000 times above normal levels. But, about 120 days after the initial spill, they could find only normal concentrations of methane and clear evidence of complete methane respiration.

"What we observed in June was a horizon of deep water laden with methane and other hydrocarbon gases," Valentine said. "When we returned in September and October and tracked these waters, we found the gases were gone. In their place were residual methane-eating bacteria, and a 1 million ton deficit in dissolved oxygen that we attribute to respiration of methane by these bacteria."

While the scientists' research documents the changing conditions of the Gulf waters, it also sheds some light on how the planet functions naturally.

"This tragedy enabled an impossible experiment," Valentine said, "one that allowed us to track the fate of a massive methane release in the deep ocean, as has occurred naturally throughout Earth's history."

The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform exploded on April 20, 2010, about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The blast killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Oil was gushing from the site at the rate of 62,000 barrels per day, eventually spilling an estimated 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The leak was capped on July 15, and the well was permanently sealed on Sept. 19.

toxic darts

Bacteria Use 'Toxic Darts' to Disable Each Other

In nature, it's a dog-eat-dog world, even in the realm of bacteria. Competing bacteria use "toxic darts" to disable each other, according to a new study by UC Santa Barbara biologists. Their research is published in the journal Nature. The scientists studied many bacterial species, including some important pathogens. They found that bacterial cells have stick-like proteins on their surfaces, with toxic dart tips. These darts are delivered to competing neighbor cells when the bacteria touch. "The discovery of toxic darts could eventually lead to new ways to control disease-causing pathogens," said Stephanie K. Aoki, first author and postdoctoral fellow in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology.

UCSB Part of International Research Collaboration Focusing on Age-Related Macular Degeneration Cure

An international collaboration between UC Santa Barbara, the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), and several other research institutions, is bringing together leaders in the fields of stem cell biology, basic science, and ophthalmology to develop a treatment for blindness caused by age-related macular degeneration. The California Project to Cure Blindness (CPCB) was formed with a $16 million California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) "disease team" grant awarded in late 2009 to fund development of a stem cell-based treatment for age related macular degeneration.

Kenneth Kosik

National Team of Scientists Peers into the Future of Stem Cell Biology

Remarkable progress in understanding how stem cell biology works has been reported by a team of leading scientists, directed by experts at UC Santa Barbara. Their research has been published in the journal Cell Stem Cell. Stem cell biology is making waves around the world with great hope for the eventual repair of parts of the body. While many scientists see these breakthroughs as viable, there are hurdles that must be overcome, including the worrisome potential for introducing cancer when making a repair to an organ. Kenneth Kosik, left, professor in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, is senior author of the study.

UCSB anthropologists

UCSB Anthropologists Examine Relationship Between Social Status and Fertility

Two anthropologists at UC Santa Barbara are studying how social status translates into fertility. Their findings appear in an article in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. According to the researchers, the most significant variables connecting a man's social status to his reproductive success are the opportunity it affords him to marry a younger wife, and his ability to recruit allies and cooperative partners. The younger his wife, and the more social support he garners for either conflicts or food production, the more surviving offspring a man will have, the anthropologists conclude.

The article, "Why Do Men Seek Status? Fitness Payoffs to Dominance and Prestige," was co-authored by Michael Gurvan, left, associate professor of anthropology at UCSB; Christopher von Rueden, right, a doctoral student in anthropology at UCSB; and Hilliard Kaplan, professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

UCSB physicists

Research by Physicists Honored as Science's 2010 Breakthrough of the Year

A quantum device designed by a team of physicists led by Andrew Cleland, left, Aaron O'Connell, and John Martinis has been named the 2010 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science. Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), cited the UC Santa Barbara researchers for designing "a gadget that moves in ways that can only be described by quantum mechanics - the set of rules that governs the behavior of tiny things like molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. In recognition of the conceptual ground this experiment breaks, the ingenuity behind it, and its many potential applications, Science has called this discovery the most significant scientific advance of 2010."

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