Biologists have found an oil-hungry bacterium that’s ideal for oil spill cleanup

Although different types of sustainable energy are gaining momentum, we still rely to a large degree on oil. That’s not good news when it comes to the potential risks associated with oil spills, as was seen to devastating effect in 2010 with the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Although that remains the largest oil spill on record, other hazardous spills are nonetheless an unfortunately regular occurrence. Cleaning up after them takes both time and resources — not to mention the enormous toll on the environment. Could hungry bacteria help?

Researchers from the University of Quebec’s National Institute of Scientific Research certainly think it could. For the past several years, a research team including Professor Satinder Kaur Brar, Dr. Tarek Rouissi, and others have been searching for the perfect strain of bacteria to munch up large quantities of oil. The results might be a simple, effective and eco-friendly approach to decontaminating the site of oil spills.

“[This is the] first time that enzyme based-technology is proposed for decontaminated of petroleum sites [for large areas],” Brar told Digital Trends. “It can decontaminate sites in only a few days to weeks of application. We have seen that it can be applied to both contaminated soil and water. We are developing this technology of fast bioremediation using low cost enzymes with a safe bacteria.”

The bacteria the team has experimented with is a non-pathogenic marine bacterium classified as a “hydrocarbonoclastic,” meaning a bacterium which uses hydrocarbons as a source of energy. This particular bacterium is already present in oceans, where it drifts with currents. When it comes into contact with large amounts of oil compounds, it multiplies. This explains the natural degradation which has been observed after some oil spills.

In tests on contaminated soil, the team demonstrated that enzymes from the bacterium can degrade up to 80 percent of the compounds which result from oil spills. These include benzene, toluene, and xylene. Delivered to the site of an oil spill, the bacteria could be a powerful way of cleaning up polluted land and marine environments.

“The next step is the formulation and fields tests in real conditions,” Brar explained.

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