University of California, Santa Barbara geochemist David Valentine is out to convince his skeptics, leading a follow-up report to an early 2011 study that found bacteria had consumed nearly all of the methane plumes spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon.

The new results show that the physical structure of the Gulf allowed communities of bacteria to multiply in a fairly enclosed area rather than being swept away by currents, resulting in more rapid consumption of hydrocarbon spewing from the well.

"It tells us that the motion of the water is an important component in determining how rapidly different hydrocarbons are broken down," Valentine said. "It gives us concepts that we can now apply to other situations, if we understand the physics."

Valentine and mechanical engineer Igor Mezic developed a computer model to demonstrate how bacteria consumed more than 200,000 metric tons of dissolved methane, using data on the chemical composition of hydrocarbons, 52 types of bacteria, and the U.S. Navy's model of the gulf's ocean currents.

"The general perspective is that we need to pay more attention to where the currents are flowing around the places where we have spills," said Mezic. "We don't have models for most of those. Why not mandate a model?”

The National Science Foundation funded the research.

The results are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.