Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A possible solution to disastrous oil spills

Oil Eating Microbes

~Beth Morris

Imagine that there are tiny organisms in the ocean that eat crude oil. According to German microbiologist, Dietman Pieper, there is such an organism. Though it is clear that these microbes can and do degraded massive amounts of petroleum; off the Gulf of Mexico they have been known to consume much as two Exxon-Valdez oil spills within a year’s time through natural leaks from the earth’s basin. This process is better known as bioremediation. Scientist states that approximately 1,700 out of about 5,000 genes of microbes are capable of consuming oil. Though there are many different qualities to crude oil such as methane and benzene, each microbe serves a specific purpose and can only degrade one particular particle of the oil. Though if the bacteria work as a whole, they can band together and degrade an oil spill. What happens in the process is the microbes take from the plumes of oil, oxygen and hydrocarbons and digest them into CO2. There was debate as to whether these bacteria could perform properly in cold water, such like the Gulf of Mexico. It has been found that the certain microbes living in the Gulf reproduce at a faster rate than they would in a warmer climate. The microbes work more quickly on plumes that contain less dense crude. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill contained heavier oils than did the BP spill, which is seemingly why the BP spill disappeared from the ocean more quickly.

"There is no compound, man-made or natural, that microorganisms cannot degrade,” says Terry Hazen, head of the ecology department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. In 1981an organism was created in a laboratory to mirror a strain of Pseudomonas. This was designed in effort to do the “oil-eating dirty work of four species in one”. However, nothing works as well as microbes found naturally in the ocean. Scientist continue to research new fields one of which is metagenomics. This field explores the DNA of the bacterial community within its natural habitat. Through this research, Biologist J. Craig Venter has discovered approximately 2,000 species in an area that was believed to harbor very little life. The sea, however continues to challenge researchers with its “complex and uncontained” mass, as they push forward to understand this amazing ecosystem.




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