Tar balls reveal the biological legacy of Gulf's early life

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Those gooey dime- and quarter-size tar balls washing up in the Texas surf last weekend bore more than just an ugly reminder of the catastrophic oil gushing into the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Tar balls carry a biological legacy of the algae, plants and marine life that died and, over millions of years, formed oil. And this particular oil has much to tell us about the hot, dry and salty origins of the Gulf.

"With each bit of oil you have a window into the chemistry of what the world was like when these oils formed," said Norman Guinasso, Jr., director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University.

The distinctive chemistry of oil found a mile deep in the Mississippi Canyon, off the Louisiana coast, allowed the U.S. Coast Guard to promptly and unambiguously determine that tar balls found on Crystal Beach during the July Fourth weekend came from the BP spill.

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