Burping Bacteria Cause La Brea Tar Pits to Bubble

A newly discovered bacteria is bubbling in the goo at La Brea tar pits.

The bacteria in natural asphalt munch on petroleum at the popular site and burp up methane gas, University of California, Riverside, researchers said.

Previously, educators suspected the methane bubbles were a byproduct of oil creation 1,000 feet below the surface.

"I was totally surprised, but totally delighted," said paleontologist John Harris, chief curator at the Page Museum where tar pit fossils are collected. "The tar pits are world-famous already for fossils, but this is another claim to fame."

During the past century, scientists and volunteers scouring the Wilshire Boulevard tar pits have unearthed the relics of 600 types of animals and plants from the last great ice age. Some fossils are 40,000 years old.

However, as many as 300 bacteria found in tar pit samples were previously unknown, researchers said.

Harris said the excavation had focused mostly on dead things.

"We weren't looking for stuff living in it," he said.

UC Riverside researcher David Crowley and Jong-Shik Kim, a postdoctoral research associate, poured cold liquid nitrogen on the asphalt, crushed it into a fine powder and extracted bacterial DNA.

"We found some really great bacteria," Crowley said. "The types we found are all very specialized for life in extreme environments."

The petroleum-eating bacteria could have environmental applications, Crowley said. Its ability to break up complex hydrocarbons could help clean oil spills or clear the holds of oil tankers.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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