Six years have passed since the largest accidental oil spill in history invaded the Gulf of Mexico. From the day the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, pumping thousands of gallons of oil into the water, engineers and scientists have relentlessly tried to return the environment to its normal state. But all the while, nature was working on its own solution.
When the oil began making its way through the water in 2010, scientists noticed a few particular species of bacteria began to grow exponentially. Though they usually exist in small numbers among the millions of bacteria living in saltwater, these species thrived because of their ability to easily break down the complex structure of oil. This advantage in oil consumption, which has been a key part in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, recently caught the interests of UT microbiologist Brett Baker and his team at the UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas.
“I just kind of noticed that a lot of research that’s been done on the bacteria has been on figuring out who is there,” Baker says. “We wanted to go beyond that. We wanted to figure out what [the bacteria] were actually doing.”
So he and five other researchers spent roughly a year closely studying these oil-eating bacteria. Before publishing their findings in the journal Nature Microbiology in May, they ventured into the community of organisms surrounding the oil spill and extracted their DNA. Employing techniques similar to those used to sequence the human genome, the researchers were able to decode what about their physiology gave particular bacteria an upper-hand.
“It’s really powerful,” Baker says. “It’s essentially changing our whole views of the environment.”
Including species named Alcanivorax and Neptuniibacter, the bacteria have specific characteristics that allow them to use compounds found in oil, like alkanes and aromatic hydrocarbons, as their carbon source. “It’s their food,” Baker says, despite oil’s complexity.
Considering the recent Shell oil spill in May, UT marine science professor Edward J. Buskey says Baker’s research can mean a number of possibilities for future oil spills. “You could stockpile some of these hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria, and the idea is if you had an oil spill you apply them to it,” says Buskey, who is also the director of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Consortium.
Currently, scientists use recovery methods like the spreading of chemical dispersants throughout the water to break down the oil into small droplets. But applying these chemicals to the ocean, which coincidentally helps bacteria more readily consume oil, might be damaging to the environment. If scientists could harness the genetic potential of the oil-eating bacteria, harmful methods could be avoided. “One of the reasons we’re doing these studies is to help decision makers decide when to use dispersants,” Buskey says.
The problem they run into is the bacteria themselves. Unlike terrestrial bacteria, which are typically cooperative in a lab, ocean bacteria are more stubborn and must be worked on in their natural environment. The next step for Baker and his team is determining how to culture the species and turning them into a practical tool.
“What [Baker’s] lab is doing is very important,” Buskey says. “In the past, people have mainly just said what’s out there. So [this research is helping] to get an idea of which species are doing what and what are some really new insights to the world of bacteria.”
A ship floats among a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Photo by Kris Krug via Flickr.
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