How microbes are cleaning up the BP oil spill
Microbes, primarily bacteria and fungi, get a bad rap in today’s society. However they’ve long played an incredible role within the Earth’s ecosystem. And one of the most important places microbes are transforming the earth is in the Gulf of Mexico, where a number of strains are busy munching up the oil still left over from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which took place just over five years ago caused a massive ecological disaster in and around the Gulf of Mexico. This is partially because the spill took so long to quell, with oil companies scrambling (and often failing) to stem the flow of oil from the seabed.
In the end about 4.9 billion barrels of oil spilled out into the Gulf of Mexico. It prompted some of the largest cleanup efforts in history. It is a cleanup that local communities are still forced to contend with, and while BP has had to pay out large settlements, there is still much more to be done, as an environmental disaster of these proportions takes decades to clean up.
Although many microbes can “break down” oil into water and carbon dioxide, you need a sort of perfect harmony between a number of different bacteria and fungi to properly break down the various components of crude oil.
Luckily these microbes already know how to work together. According to the Fisheries and Oceans department of Canada, that’s because, “Much of the Earth’s crude oil is trapped in underground reservoirs, but some leaks to the surface, and has been doing so for millions of years. It is estimated that about half of the oil entering the world’s oceans today comes from these natural seeps.”
It is because of this that, “Microbes that use oil as their source of energy have been around for hundreds of millions of years—indeed, for as long as this energy-rich substance has been available. Where oil is naturally present, for example, on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, the community of microbes that collectively feeds on all the different compounds contained in the oil is well established and diverse.”
Beach goer image via Shutterstock.
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