Oil-eating bacteria could clean up the next spill

oil spill
CC BY 2.0 Green Fire Productions

Oil spills have become an unfortunate part of modern life. As long as we're dependent on oil for energy and moving it around the globe, there will be spills. While that's a depressing thought, the good news is that researchers are continually finding better ways to clean up these spills, like magic sponge-like materials that can hold far more than their weight in oil.

The latest discovery is on a much smaller scale: bacteria. Scientists at INRS, a research university in Quebec, have identified a specific bacteria that feeds on hydrocarbons called Alcanivorax borkumensis. The bacterium's enzymes give it the special ability to use hydrocarbons as a source of energy.

Now that thousands of types of bacterias' genomes have been sequenced, researchers can go through this information like a catalog, which is exactly what Dr.Tarek Rouissi did in order to find a likely candidate for this study. He found A. borkumensis, a marine bacterium that is considered hydrocarbonoclastic.

This microorganism exists in every ocean and multiplies quickly where there are high concentrations of oil. In fact, this bacteria is likely responsible for some of the natural degradation of ocean spills, but researchers want to amplify this effect to speed up the clean up process. The enzymes in the bacteria do the work and in particular the hydroxylases are very effective and resistant to chemical conditions.

To test the enzymes, researchers extracted and purified a few of them and put them to work on samples of contaminated soil.

“The degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80% for various compounds,” said Professor Satinder Kaur Brar, whose team conducted the study.

The enzymes were effective in breaking down benzene, toluene, and xylene have been tested in various conditions to show that the process is successful in both land and marine environments.

The next step for the researchers is to learn more about how the bacteria degrade the hydrocarbons in order to find a way to deploy the enzymes in a full scale oil spill.

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