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June 03, 2010


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I was literally quoting your blog in my new post when you commented on my blog. I have directed people here for your wonderful insight into these pressing issues. Thank you!


I just read in USA Today about urgent suggestions to use microbe friendly nutrients to expedite the oil decomposition. I hope that this is attempted very soon. A huge almost international effort has to be taken to mitigate this massive ecological/social disaster.

Thanks for all the research you have been putting into this issue.

What happens to the oil that is consumed by oil-eating bacteria? Does the bacteria retain the oil? or does it turn it into waste or something?

Good question, and, as usual, there isn't a simple answer. Natural crude oil contain thousands of different chemicals, and bacteria such as Alcanivorax are not interested in most of them. What they are interested in are the alkane compounds, molecules of carbon and hydrogen that provide the bacteria with energy and a source of carbon. They use the oxygen in seawater and their own specialized enzymes to break down the oil and process the alkanes, in the process emitting carbon dioxide. This still leaves a lot of the oil but, importantly, it's broken down and emulsified by the natural surfactants (glucose lipids) that the bacteria generate which, in turn, allows more rapid degradation. I'm not sure, but this emulsified oil may then be attacked by other bacteria whose favourite items on the menu are different from those of Alcanivorax.

That's about the limit of a geologist's understanding of microbiology! If anyone has further light to shed on this it would be much appreciated.

what happen to the bacteria after eating the oil spills?

Another good question! The components of the oil form food for the bacteria, and, as long as it's available, they'll keep on dividing and multiplying. My understanding is that this will go on as long as food supplies last. Sorry I can't be more specific, not being a microbiologist!


As a microbiologist, I just wanted to throw in my two cents about the questions above. Michael is correct. A couple of things can happen to the oil being consumed by the bacteria. As you know, crude oil is a soup of different hydrocarbons and other chemicals. Different microbes prefer different components of the crude oil to preform different cellular tasks. Alcanivorax, for example, uses n-alkanes (or saturated hydrocarbons) primarily as a food source. Other microbes can use the hydrocarbons as the finial electron acceptor in cellular respiration. These microbes primarily use the aromatics and cyclical hydrocarbons in the crude oil. There are many species of oil degrading microbes which all use different parts of the crude oil so, in the end, the majority of the crude can be degraded naturally in the environment (like Michael, not agreeing with Rush or anything like that). After the oil is gone, the bacterial bloom will die, with the environment not being able to support the inflated biomass of the bacteria.

The one thing I believe I disagree with Michael about is that we should be adding these microbes to the gulf (correct me if I'm wrong, it seemed like you were suggesting this). There are already these bacteria there and it is very difficult to force bacteria into a niche that is already filled. In the past, adding microbes to the environment has failed (ex. Exon-Valdez spill tried this). What shows significantly more promise though is the addition of fertilizers to the spill site as nitrogen and phosphorous tend to be the limiting nutrients that slow the work down of the natural bacteria. Like with anything in the scientific community though, there is lively and ongoing debate about the subject and I can only present my opinion on the subject.

Great Article! I'm glad I stumbled onto it!


Ah - someone who knows what they're talking about - thanks for this, Matt! I became intrigued by this issue and, knowing virtually nothing about it, did a little digging around for facts as opposed to rhetoric. I soon discovered the (hardly surprising) complexities and the unknowns surrounding, for example, the idea of adding bacteria. It seemed to me that, firstly, the situation in the Gulf differed from the Exxon Valdez (lighter oil and warmer waters), and secondly that research had moved on. I certainly would not support wholesale ignorant messing around with the environment (unlike the sand berms construction...sorry, just had to say that) but a pilot project of bacterial "seeding" in a restricted area under controlled conditions might have been worth thinking about. After all, in terms of the temporary expansion of the food supply, that niche was suddenly less than full - but then I appreciate that bacteria are naturally quite good at responding to this anyway.

Debate, as long as it's considered and rational, is a good thing here - like everywhere!


If bacteria such as these hydrocarbon digesting bacteria could be manipulated to only uptake the spilt oil and not digest it, then do you believe if these bacteria were separated from their surroundings then this oil could be extracted,possibly for future use, and hence to prevent waste?


Luke - starting, as usual, with the disclaimer that I'm not a microbiologist, this is an interesting question, particularly since these bacteria thrive on any oil, naturally "spilt" or otherwise. However, since their metabolism is designed for breaking down oil components and extracting nutrients and energy, I'm not sure whether manipulating them not to digest the oil wouldn't be removing their whole reason for living! But then again, natural crude oil contains so many different constituents, and the bacteria focus only on a few, could useful ones remain in their systems? I honestly don't know.

However, there are rapid strides being made in amnipulating other bacteria to ingest organic waste and process it into useable hydrocarbons plus a variety of other chemicals - see




Are there really enough of these bacteria to make a difference? Can they be synthesized in a lab in large quantities?

Yes, there are, and yes, they probably can!

can these be cultivated in the lab? mass stored to comabt the relentless assault on our coast lines.. cos thats gonna happen faster than us weaning ourselves off this poisonous stuff

Yes, research shows that they can be grown in the lab.

what research are you referring to in regards to culturing these bacteria in a lab? I am a biology teacher and am interested in learning more about the process.


AJ - it's been a while since I looked into this, but a quick search shows a number of laboratories that have cultivated alcanivorax - see, for example:




and I came across a wide-ranging recent review article on marine biocatalysts at


Hope this is of some help!



Some bacteria are very benefitial to our ocean. Things like pollution, including oils, that are consumed by wildlife cause diseases and change DNA in many of the ocean animals. If this oil is consumed by bacteria and goes up the food chain, wouldn't it somehow get into the bodies of fish consumed by humans or other wildlife? Woulnd't that create a catastrophic disaster? And how could all the bacteria possibly be removed from the ocean if it were found to cause massive problems?

Hi Julia. There are two key factors here - bacteria like alcanivorax consume components of oil to convert them into energy - they are the microbes' food, and therefore the original oil does not make it into the food chain. Also, the reason these microbes exist at all is that naturally occurring crude oil is widespread in the oceans, and hence they have evolved to feed on it.

It's easy to forget how beneficial bacteria are - to ourselves and the planet. The disaster would be in trying to remove them!

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