May 292010
Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico (NASA, International...
Image by nasa1fan/MSFC via Flickr

Bacteria and other microbes are the only thing that will ultimately clean up the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

The last (and only) defense against the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is tiny—billions of hydrocarbon-chewing microbes, such as Alcanivorax borkumensis. In fact, the primary motive for using the more than 830,000 gallons of chemical dispersants on the oil slick both above and below the surface of the sea is to break the oil into smaller droplets that bacteria can more easily consume.

“If the oil is in very small droplets, microbial degradation is much quicker,” says microbial ecologist Kenneth Lee, director of the Center for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who has been measuring the oil droplets in the Gulf of Mexico to determine the effectiveness of the dispersant use. “The dispersants can also stimulate microbial growth. Bacteria will chew on the dispersants as well as the oil.”

For decades scientists have pursued genetic modifications that might enhance these microbes’ ability to chew up oil spills, whether on land or sea. Even geneticist Craig Venter forecast such an application last week during the unveiling of the world’s first synthetic cell, and one of the first patents on a genetically engineered organism was a hydrocarbon-eating microbe, notes microbiologist Ronald Atlas of the University of Louisville. But there are no signs of such organisms put to work outside the lab.

“Microbes are available now but they are not effective for the most part,” says marine microbiologist Jay Grimes of the University of Southern Mississippi. At this point, there are no man-made microbes that are more effective than naturally occurring ones at utilizing hydrocarbons.

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