Ecologically devastating oil spills still occur far too often. A variety of technological methods have been proposed to help clear them up, but mechanical clear ups are often laborious, slow, and inefficient. Which is why a new study discovery is so welcome: It suggests that one incredibly effective solution may be found in the microbial world.
The research, led by a team hailing from the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS) in Quebec, looked into the efficacy of Alcanivorax borkumensis, a bacterium that “eats” hydrocarbons, including those that make up petroleum. As it turns out, the secret to its success resides within its powerful enzymes; when tried out in laboratory experiments, they were shown to thoroughly biodegrade petroleum products, both in simulated terrestrial and oceanic environments.
According to the Biochemical Engineering Journal paper, a variety of hydrocarbons – including motor oil, hexadecane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, you name it – can be broken down by purified A. borkumensis enzymes. Not only that, but the biodegradation process itself is remarkably efficient, particularly compared to other bacteria's similar enzymes.
It may surprise you that this bacterial species’ abilities aren’t unique. As the authors of the study note early on, several species are already known to exist that can biodegrade petroleum, and they’ve already been tested out in a variety of environments for this very purpose.
A. borkumensis, however, has a few advantages. It’s found all over the world, it can assimilate a wide range of hydrocarbons, and, as noted by the study authors, “they are believed to play an important role in the natural bioremediation of oil spills worldwide,” including BP’s 2010 catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re also non-pathogenic, which means they’re incapable of causing disease.
Although “eating” oil may seem strange, it’s worth remembering that bacteria are from an entirely different domain of life to us. There are extremophiles out there that live off nothing more than water and irradiated, sulfur-releasing minerals. Others are also thought to be eating oceanic plastic in vast quantities, but the data here is somewhat less certain. This bacterium, then, is par for the course.
Using A. borkumensis to solve our post-spill woes certainly sounds like a viable, effective, eco-friendly scheme, but at present, this is just a proof-of-concept study. The definitive proof, as they say, is in the pudding – a real-life, large-scale test is ultimately required. Notably, as other research has pointed out, conditions in some parts of the world – especially the Arctic – may prove too much for these little critters.