The Planet

Bacteria Might Hold The Answers In The Global Battle Against Oil Spills

by James Poulos

February 15, 2018


Bottom-dwelling bacteria have eaten a large part of the oil dispersed during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill much to the surprise of scientists.


When it comes to cleanup and collective action, nature still has some surprises in store even for the most enterprising. Case in point: The Gulf of Mexico, still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, has a new ally — bacteria.

That punishing 2010 leak churned almost 5 million barrels of oil into the surrounding seawater while the project platform itself infamously blazed away. Old fears of the devastation wrought by offshore drilling accidents have been rekindled by the Trump administration, which just rolled back cautionary Obama-era rules rushed through in Deepwater’s grisly wake.

And at least some industry analysts expect 2018 to be the year drilling begins an upward trajectory, with oil and gas production likely reaching all-time highs.

In the meantime, ecologists have discovered there’s a new tool in the global kit to mitigate and reverse undersea damage from oil. Thanks to one unintended consequence of the scramble to stop the Deepwater spill from doing even more damage, studies have found that the Gulf’s rebound owes a great deal to one special bacteria.

Called Candidatus Bermanella macondoprimitus, the strain, native to Gulf waters, jumped at the chance to glom on to vast stretches of oil submerged by the chemicals used to push the brown stuff down from the water’s surface. Quick to grow under the right conditions, the Candidatus went to work on the droplets of oil, degrading it to the point where, today, lead researcher and University of California microbial ecologist Gary Andersen says marine life is so healthy that fishing has returned to the area. It’s a welcome addition to degradation research published several years ago by University of Georgia marine scientists like Samantha Joye.

Even more importantly, Andersen’s team managed to sequence the Candidatus genome to hone in on exactly which genes go to work against the oil. The work has big implications: In theory, any team of scientists with the right expertise can run genome tests on bacteria local to any spill site, determining what to expect from the microbes and how best to work to leverage their results.    

Resilience is hardly a license for irresponsibility. But the resources for bouncing back from adversity can come from places you don’t always see in advance.  

Share image by Gerd Altmann/Pixabay.

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Bacteria Might Hold The Answers In The Global Battle Against Oil Spills