Oil Eating Bacteria: What They Are And What They Do

5 June 2015
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After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, nature went to work trying to fix itself, as it often does. In this case, it was by deploying its emergency response team of oil-eating bacteria that break down oil into its elemental parts. All oil-eating microbes are not created equal. Each has a specific purpose in nature's plan for removing harmful elements from the waters where they live.

What Are Oil-Eating Bacteria?

Oil eating bacteria are microbes found in all the world's oceans that spring into action in times of disaster. They derive their energy by consuming and breaking down various elements in oil. They usually exist in small populations until there is an ample supply of oil, at which time they bloom and spread to consume the oil molecules. When the oil is gone, their populations go back to normal levels.

What Are Alkanes?

Oil is largely made up of hydrocarbons, compounds that only contain hydrogen and carbon. Most of the hydrocarbons in oil are saturated hydrocarbons called alkanes. Alkanes react with oxygen, which is what makes oil combustible.

Alcanivorax Borkumensis

The most well-known of all the oil-eating microbes, this rod-shaped bacterium has been used all over the world to mitigate oil spill damage. S. borkumensis blooms only after a spill and works to break down alkanes. It also spreads a biodispersant to allow other microbes to help with the cleanup.

Thalossolituus Oleivorans

This bacteria works much like A. borkumensis, working hard to turn alkanes into microbial cells, CO2 and water. However, it does not work cooperatively with other microbes and can actually slow down and reduce their activity. It is found naturally from the Gulf of Mexico to the Black Sea.

Neptunomonas Genus

Some members of the Neptunomonas genus work to destroy polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are the cancer-causing components in crude oil. They not only consume crude oil but also clean up the fatty-acids left behind by rotting whale carcasses.

Cycloclasticus Genus

There are 23 strains of Cycloclasticus bacteria which consume the most dangerous constituents of oil: the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some of these rod-shaped bacterium can also eat more toxic aromatic hydrocarbons like tuolene.

Other oil-eating microbes include the Colwellia genus, the Oceanospiralleles order, and the Oleispira genus. Scientists are studying the genetics of many of these bacteria in an attempt to increase their abilities to clean up oil spills, but so far, none of them has been able to improve on what nature has provided. Although your environmental remediation needs may not reach the levels of a major oil spill, local experts are available to mitigate the damages, so don't hesitate to call for any size environmental problem.

For more information, contact A. G. Wassenaar, Inc. or a similar company.