Bangor scientists' plan to clean up oil spills


Marine bacteria could be the key to cleaning oil spills in the sea, according to microbiologists at Bangor University.

The scientists believe naturally occurring microbes found in sea water could be harnessed to "feed" off oil polluting the ocean.

They have tested the theory using sea water collected from the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Mediterranean.

Early results suggest the system could work in a range of locations.

The microbes, found all over the planet, naturally occur on microscopic algae.

Their numbers are regulated by the amount of food and certain nutrients that they need to thrive.

The research has been released as efforts continue in the Gulf of Mexico to control a breached oil well which has caused a major spill.

"The oil spill is an alternative digestible food source for these microbes," said Christoph Gertler of the university's school of biological sciences.

"Although probably present in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, a shortage of other essential nutrients limits their growth in numbers.

"What we have trialled is adding the nutrients these organisms need in the form of a fertilizer, in a containing boom, for example.

"This enables the microbes to multiply and, in the process, to break down and digest the pollutant."

The team initially used the heaviest and most complex oil to biodegrade in small-scale experiments of 500 millilitres, managing to remove 95% of it by applying the bacteria.

They then tried 500 litres, managing to remove virtually everything with the help of both bacteria and an oil-absorbing material.

Gulf of Mexico

"The next step would be to test the method in the field on an actual oil spill as soon as possible," said Dr Gertler.

"The potential for bioremediation, as this technique is called, is huge.

"It is, I believe, the only technique that would effectively remove oil that is distributed over such large distances as are being seen in the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"Generally speaking, only collecting, or 'skimming', the oil from the water surface, in-situ burning or biodegradation removes the oil from the ecosystem. Dispersants only distribute it nicely."

Dr Gertler's colleague Professor Peter Golyshin added: "The microbe used in the experiments, alcanivorax borkumensis, is extremely well adapted to oil degradation.

"It lives solely on oil and dies after consuming all oil in its surrounding.

"Experiments in the lab have shown that, given good growth conditions, the bacteria initiate oil degradation very quickly within a week after the oil spill and finish it within two months."

The Bangor University team is part of an international research project aimed at optimising the clean up of contaminated sites.

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