By Saarang Kashyap
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, one of the largest marine oil spills in history, released over 4,900,000 barrels into the ocean of which only 800,000 were recaptured. Thousands of birds, mammals, and sea turtles were plastered with leaked oil, decreasing their ability to survive and reproduce. Coral larvae, which were initially mobile, attached to mature corals at much-reduced rates and the toxic components of the oil were fatal to rotifers, microorganisms crucial to the gulf food web. There was one positive discovery, however: bacteria in the ocean that had adapted to consuming naturally occurring gas had decreased the extent of the oil spill.
This got scientists thinking about potential bacteria they could use to clean up oil spills, with recent studies pointing to Alcanivorax Borkumensis as the most viable option. According to SpringerLink, “Alcanivorax borkumensis is a marine bacterium that uses exclusively petroleum oil hydrocarbons as sources of carbon and energy.” This means that this species breaks down long chains of crude oil for energy rather than sugars or carbohydrates. This bacterium is normally present at low levels in the ocean and becomes abundant when a source of oil becomes available.
Much like plants, Alcanivorax needs “fertilizer” in nitrogen and phosphorus to grow properly. Fortunately, Alcanivorax Borkumensis is adaptable to the substantial imbalance of nutrients in carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus after oil spills. This bacterium has many transport proteins that allow for the fast uptake of key nutrients from its environment, making it ideal to be used in the tough environment created by oil contamination.
One study highlighting the effectiveness of Alcanivorax involved a research team that purified a few enzymes in the bacteria and used them to treat samples of contaminated soil (ScienceDaily). “The degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80% for various compounds,” said Brar, a professor at INRS who led the study. “The process is effective in removing benzene, toluene, and xylene, and has been tested under a number of different conditions to show that it is a powerful way to clean up polluted land and marine environments.” (Biochemical Engineering Journal)
Through the employment of this novel bacteria, it is plausible that scientists may be able to solve an oil crisis that comes with the mass use and production of fossil fuels. It is only fitting that widespread and large damage to the oceans is solved by something microscopic.