Recent events have highlighted the damage our dependence on oil can wreak on the natural world. However, as Lena Ciric discusses in this article in Microbiology Today, communities of bacteria have evolved over billions of years to be rather better than we are at breaking down the complex hydrocarbons that are found in oil. How we can exploit this ability to improve our future clean-up strategies?
On 20th April 2010 a massive explosion rang out in the Gulf of Mexico. The source of the incident was the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, situated about 84 km from the Louisiana coast, which had been drilling for oil at a depth of over 1,500 m. The explosion killed 11 people at the time and was the cause of what is now referred to as the worst environmental disaster in US history. It is difficult to state the exact volume of oil which has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the best estimate being put forward by the US government as 4.9 million barrels. That’s over 770 million litres, or over 300 full Olympic-size swimming pools. The well which was the source of the oil spill has since been plugged successfully and a US government report has stated that three-quarters of the spilled oil as now been ‘dealt with’. A considerable proportion of the removal of the spill is attributed to bacterial biodegradation of the hydrocarbons that constitute the crude oil. The huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only one of a huge number of oil spills that have taken place over the course of Earth’s history. For billions of years, our microbial neighbours have been evolving to utilize the molecules that constitute oil – and it turns out that they have now become quite
good at it.