The Oil Eating Bacteria That Can Clean Up Crude Spills

It’s not a widely known fact that the 2010 oil spill caused by the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform could have been even worse were it not for bacteria. Several species of marine bacteria that feed on ingredients in crude oil and natural gas bloomed during the spill, feasting on Louisiana light, sweet crude. Now, one of these species has been found to be a particularly promising candidate for a champion against oil spills.

Meet Alcanivorax borkumensis, or A. borkumensis for short. This rod-shaped microbe lives in all of the world’s oceans with a special preference for oil-polluted areas, as it uses hydrocarbon molecules for food. The bacterium’s genome was sequenced more than 10 years ago by a couple of researchers from the German Research Center for Biotechnology—but now another team has gone deeper, identifying the enzymes the bacteria produce to break down crude oil and gas.

Led by Professor Satinder Kaur Brar, the team from the University of Quebec’s research center INRS tested enzymes produced by A. borkumensis to see how effective they were in degrading components of crude oil. A. borkumensis was selected as the most voracious oil eater among several bacterial strains.

Research associate Dr. Tarek Rouissi singled out the rod-shaped bacterium because, he says, he had a hunch about it. The hunch proved correct, with the team discovering that A. borkumensis had evolved as the toughest kid on the block, developing a set of enzymes that allowed it to consume almost all the molecules that make up crude oil. One group of these stood out: the hydroxylases.

Hydroxilases are enzymes that catalyze oxidation—but don’t strain yourself trying to remember your middle school chemistry. In this case, the hydroxilases simply proved more efficient than other enzymes at breaking down crude oil components, and not just from the water, but from the soil as well. In fact they were so good, they broke down 80 percent of various crude oil compounds. To put this in context, oil and gas are made up of more than 150 different molecules.

So, tiny little A. borkumensis is a very promising microorganism that can theoretically be used to clean up oil spills both in the water and on the ground, even in difficult to reach areas, which is especially valuable. The question is when the theoretical can become practical and it is for now a question without an answer.

These bacteria thrive in polluted waters. Theoretically again, they can be kept in stock in oil-rich pools, ready to be deployed to a spill site when necessary. Also, they could probably be modified to become even better oil eaters. This will turn them into a cheap, easy to use solution to the problem that had plagued the oil industry for decades, especially since the seriousness of oil spills reached the limelight in recent years.

Of course, it also means that coastal economies will be unable to reap the benefits of oil spill cleanups, as was suggested by BP in its correspondence with the Australian environmental watchdog a couple years ago. Besides, if A. borkumensis lives up to the promise, in a distant bright future a lot of environmentalists may be forced to find another hobby since oil spills will no longer be a problem.

By Irina Slav for