I've celebrated the extraordinary things that microbes can do (or at least the little we actually know about what they can do) in other posts, but now, surely, is the time to seek their help on a grand scale in the Gulf of Mexico. Now that the initial segments of sand berms have been approved by the Federal Government ("based on a thorough expert analysis"..... see my previous three posts), it seems that we can only wait and reap the fruits of this exercise. These projects seem to have been the sole focus of political rhetoric over the last weeks, and the possibilities for actually getting rid of the oil have been relegated to the sidelines of what, in my view has become a political game - to the detriment of the health of the Gulf. In this context, I have to ask why more emphasis is not being placed on the use of Alcanivorax borkumensis, a natural bacterium that has a voracious appetite for hydrocarbons.
Given that there are hundreds of natural oil seeps in the northern Gulf, spewing out an estimated 70,000 tonnes (roughly equivalent to 20 million US gallons) of oil every year, why do we not see a more oil-polluted Gulf in normal circumstances? One big reason is the natural activity of bacteria like Alcanivorax borkumensis. No, I'm not supporting Rush Limbaugh and his demented and twisted interpretation of facts, but one fact is that natural processes can help in the kind of catastrophe we are facing. But those natural processes don't have the critical mass to deal with events on this scale - they need help. The use of oil-eating microbes has been the subject of research around the world for many years, and it is, of course, complex - different bacteria have a liking for different hydrocarbons and graze the ocean buffet with discrimination; their activity levels vary with conditions of ocean chemistry and temperature. BUT: they work. Microbiologists at the University of Bangor, in Wales, have just released the results of their work on these critters in the interests of possibly immediate application to the Gulf oil slick. Christopher Gertler, one of the team, is quoted as saying "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 Gulf of Mexico oil spill."
In the interests of raising awareness, to whatever extent this blog can, here's the complete press release:
A natural tool to tackle oil spills?
Publication date: 27/05/2010
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 seawater all over the planet. They naturally occur on microscopic algae. 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 fertilizer, in a containing boom, for example. This enables the microbes to multiply and, in the process, to break down and digest the pollutant," 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 Gulf of Mexico 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."
There's quite a lot of news around on this if you look for it - the Scientific American, an NSF grant, and the BBC, for example. But much of this relates to the longer term whereas the Bangor research demonstrates that it can be done now, with, it would seem, little likelihood of unintended consequences. SO WHERE'S THE POLITICAL URGENCY, WHERE'S THE JUMPING UP AND DOWN ABOUT THIS?