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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/La Brea Tar Pits

Air Date: Week of

Methane bubbles reveal signs of life in the asphalt of La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Living on Earth’s Meghan Vigeant reports on bacteria discovered in tar pits that could be used to break down oil in the environment.



VIGEANT: It’s alive! And it’s living in the toxic soup of Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in the heart of Los Angeles

The tar pits have long attracted tourists for the Ice Age fossils found there, things like mammoths and saber-toothed cats, but the most recent finds weren’t fossils. They’re very much alive. 200 new species and even some whole new families of bacteria have been discovered living in the bubbling pits.


VIGEANT: Calling it The La Brea Tar Pits actually is a little misleading and kind of redundant, since La Brea means “the tar” in Spanish, which makes it “The The Tar Tar pits”. And it turns out that the stuff in the tar pits actually isn’t tar, it’s asphalt that seeped up from petroleum deposits and formed hundreds of sticky pools

Methane bubbles reveal signs of life in the asphalt of La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

People have long noticed bubbles popping up at the surface of the pits. The pits are methane gas. Scientists from the University of California at Riverside recently studied them and discovered their source: very hungry bacteria eating away at the heavy oil and releasing methane gas as they digest.

The bacteria are living in extreme conditions; no oxygen, very little water and a soup of toxic chemicals. The researchers have also found that some of the new bacteria can survive in highly saline and radioactive environments. This hardiness and their appetite for the petroleum goop of the tar pits means they may be useful for such applications as cleaning chemical spills and oil recovery. For now their dinner is served at The La Brea Tar Pits.


VIGEANT: Oh, excuse me. That’s this weeks note on emerging science I’m Meghan Vigeant.



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