A natural tool to tackle oil spills?

May 27, 2010
A natural tool to tackle oil spills?

(PhysOrg.com) -- Marine bacteria could be the key to cleaning oil spills in the sea, without further damaging the environment by using chemicals, according to microbiologists at Bangor University.

In the future, we could be harnessing naturally occurring microbes and fertilizing them to increase their capacity to digest oil. These microbes are found in all over the planet. They naturally occur on . Their numbers are regulated by the amount of their food source and certain nutrients that they need to thrive.

The microbiologists at Bangor University are the first to trial this theory in a systematic experiment, using seawater collected from the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Mediterranean. Their early results are strikingly similar- suggesting that the system could be effective in a wide range of locations.

"The oil spill is an alternative digestible 'food source' for these microbes. Although probably present in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, a shortage of other essential nutrients limits their growth in numbers," explains Christoph Gertler, of the School of Biological Sciences.

"What we have trialled is adding the nutrients these organisms need in the form of a , in a containing boom, for example. This enables the to multiply and, in the process, to break down and digest the ," he adds.

"Initially, we used the heaviest and most complex oil to biodegrade in small scale experiments of 500 mililitres and managed to remove 95% of it simply by applying these bacteria. In a second step, we scaled up the experiment to 500 litres and managed to remove virtually everything with the help of both bacteria and an oil absorbing material. The next step would be to test the method in the field on an actual oil spill as soon as possible."

"The potential for 'bioremediation' as this technique is called is huge. It is, I believe, the only technique that would effectively remove oil that is distributed over such large distances as are being seen in the current oil spill."

"Generally speaking, only collecting ("skimming") the oil from the water surface, in-situ burning or biodegradation removes the oil from the ecosystem. Dispersants only distribute it nicely."

Professor Golyshin explains: "The microbe used in the experiments -- Alcanivorax borkumensis -- is extremely well adapted to oil degradation. It lives solely on oil and dies after consuming all oil in its surrounding. Although it is effectively able to survive and function in a range of temperatures above 5° C, there are bacteria which perform this job in the Polar Zones, too. Bangor University also investigates Oleispira antarctica which degrades oil in seawater at freezing point."

He added, "Experiments in the lab have shown that -- given good growth conditions - the bacteria initiate oil degradation very quickly within a week after the oil spill and finish it within two months."

Explore further: Clean-up tools may help protect wetlands from Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Related Stories

Estonian oil spill threatens 35,000 birds

February 7, 2006

As many as 35,000 birds, including rare white-tailed eagles and eagle owls, are in danger as the result of an oil spill off Estonia's northwest coast.

Expert: Caution required for Gulf oil spill clean-up

May 4, 2010

With millions of gallons crude oil being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the focus now is on shutting down the leak. However, in the cleanup efforts to come, "extreme caution" must be ...

New insights into costly destruction of subsurface petroleum

September 25, 2006

Scientists are reporting an advance toward understanding and possibly combating a natural process that destroys billions of dollars worth of subsurface petroleum. Called biodegradation, it occurs as bacteria and other microbes ...

Recommended for you

Mysterious deep-Earth seismic signature explained

November 22, 2017

New research on oxygen and iron chemistry under the extreme conditions found deep inside the Earth could explain a longstanding seismic mystery called ultralow velocity zones. Published in Nature, the findings could have ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 27, 2010
Unfortunately it seems this is just a press release and the full research has not actually been published yet.

Alcanivorax borkumensis has been known for a long time and already exists in nature. It tends to become the predominant bacteria in oil-polluted waters. The problem, if I recall correctly, is that A. borkumensis is aerobic and will significantly deplete oxygen levels. Unless that can be solved, this would just be accelerating the creation of dead zones. Perhaps it can work for surface slicks?
Jun 11, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Jun 19, 2010
or i read in a magazine a bacteria that cleans up dump sites. called something like mienninite psytosis . something like that. somebody will hopefully know what it is. it was in an issue of astronomy magazine maybe a year ago?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.