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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Were we saved by a microbe in the Gulf oil spill?

The Gulf oil spill released as much as 38 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil well gushed oil for 87 days. The well, at long last, has been sealed and that was no small feat. But the real question was what to do with the oil.  
How could any ecosystem, no matter how large, possibly absorb that much oil?  
There was even speculation that after it had wreaked havoc on the Gulf that this massive plume would then make its way up the Atlantic Coast. What can I say?  All the scenarios were bad. There was no way the cleanup technologies we have at the moment, which for the most part amount to booms and souped up Shopvacs could possibly handle it. But then, along came a microbe. It is a bit of bacteria, just a few microns wide, that likes to eat oil.

The notion of pollution eating bacteria has been around for a long time.  It’s been written about, there has been extensive research, and it was even tried during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the 1980’s.  But while promising, the various strains that were developed and tried never worked that well. For the most part, oil consuming bacteria wasn’t discussed when it came to the Gulf spill. Sure, some speculated that natural bacteria might find the oil attractive, but for the most part, no one thought it would make much of an impact.   
The only hope seemed to be in the physical clean up and the possibility that the warm waters of the Gulf might speed the breakdown the oil. But then along came a little microbe called Oceanospirillales.  Try saying that three times. Heck, I can’t even pronounce it. He’s a hungry little fellow and you would need a microscope to see him, but he has a taste for oil that no one expected. What’s more, unlike other bacteria, the presence of this species of bacteria doesn’t appear to produce any negative environmental impacts.  It just eats oil and what’s left seems to be environmentally neutral.   
The speculation is that this bacteria has devoured most of the oil. That hasn’t been scientifically confirmed, but the initial indications are promising. But, if that’s true, it’s nothing short of incredible. One researcher, in trying to verify the claim, reportedly took a container of contaminated oil to a laboratory to observe just how the bacteria ate the oil. Remarkably, before the sample got to the lab, the oil had already been eaten by the bacteria.  The question remains - did a sudden burst in the population of this microbe, thanks to this sudden all you can eat buffet, devour most of the oil.  A lot of people hope so, but it may be awhile before we know for sure.
However, there are some indications that microbes are highly effective in dealing with oil spills. In July the Chinese employed special oil consuming bacteria on a spill near Dalian City. Dalian City is a coastal town in Northeastern China. The spill was small compared to the one in the Gulf, but the Chinese estimate that the specially engineered bacteria they used ate about half the oil.   
Of course, the use of bacteria in waste management is nothing new. Waste water treatment facilities rely on active bacteria to treat sewage. In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to a sewage plant is a bacteria die off.  But the notion of using it to treat more complicated waste products is only now getting some attention. For example, there are apparently bacteria that like to eat heavy metals such as nickel, zinc, and manganese. They consume these metals as food and the by-products are inert and relatively safe.
But perhaps the most intriguing potential for bacteria concerns radioactive materials.  What to do with the world’s spent nuclear fuel is a major problem. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site originally planned to hold the nation’s nuclear by-products, was closed before it even received its first load of nuclear material. So, now, most nuclear plants just keep these radioactive materials at their plants.  That’s hardly a comforting thought. However, and you probably saw this coming, yes, there appears to be a strain of bacteria that can use radioactivity as a food source.  
These microbes can take radiation 5,000 times as strong as what we humans can endure and they think it’s a tasty treat. Radiation eating bacteria have been found deep in South African gold mines and recently there was a fungus found on the walls of the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that according to initial tests was absorbing nuclear material and using it for food. None of this means that there is a nuclear waste eating bacteria on the horizon. But it does offer the possibility.   
The idea of the world smallest creatures helping solve our industrial waste problems is both elegant and ironic. But the potential benefits could be enormous. However, while specially bred microbes could help us clean up our long list of industrial messes, the objective, should still to be to find ways to avoid creating these environmental problems in the first place.    
You may reach David Kerr at
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