Bacteria strains “eat” oil spillages in Gulf of Mexico

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has duplicated the water conditions in areas affected by the 4m barrel Gulf of Mexico spillage when a Deepwater Horizon drill-pipe exploded in 2010. A research team at the lab isolated the oil-eating strains of bacteria that helped eradicated sub-surface spill plume.

Nearly half the 4m spilled barrels remained below the surface. After collecting deep ocean water from the region and adding oil and dispersants to it the team discovered a fast-growing, oil-eating bacterium (named bermanella macondoprimitus), along with a community of other deep-dwelling species that have streamlined genes for degrading oil.

Team leader microbial ecologist Gary Andersen said that oft-criticized dispersants used in oil clean-ups boosted these microbes’ performance. “Our study demonstrated the importance of using dispersants in producing neutrally buoyant, tiny oil droplets, which kept much of the oil from reaching the ocean surface. Naturally occurring microbes at this depth are highly specialized in growing by using specific components of the oil for their food source. So the oil droplets provided a large surface area for the microbes to chew up the oil”, he said.

Unfortunately the bacteria evolved specifically for the Gulf of Mexico environment, meaning that they cannot be used in other waters.