Cleaning up oil spills is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Now, that somebody might turn out to be a hungry little bacterium named Alcanivorax borkumensis, which is known to chow down on the hydrocarbons that make up oil. Researchers at the INRS in Canada have isolated the key enzymes that A. borkumensis uses, and put them to work cleaning soil samples in the lab.

Oil spills are serious environmental hazards, as the Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrated back in 2010. Ocean currents can spread petroleum much farther than might be expected, and the particles can leach into sand and soil, remaining there for years or even decades. To make the cleanup easier and more effective, scientists have been developing a range of materials, meshes and nanoparticles, along with more outlandish schemes like vacuum cleaners, microsubmarines and strange forms of fire.

As it turns out, bacteria may have been trying to help all along. A. borkumensis is commonly found in all oceans around the world, and populations tend to skyrocket in oily waters – which is a good thing, since the microorganism eats many of the hydrocarbons found in oil. The INRS team studied the enzymes this bacterium uses to break it down, and isolated hydroxylases as the most effective ones.

After purifying several of these enzymes, the team tested them in the lab, cleaning up samples of contaminated soil with promising results.

"The degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80 percent for various compounds," says Satinder Kaur Brar, lead researcher on the study. "The process is effective in removing benzene, toluene, and xylene, and has been tested under a number of different conditions to show that it is a powerful way to clean up polluted land and marine environments."

The researchers plan to continue studying how A. borkumensis metabolizes these hydrocarbons, and figure out how they might be put to work cleaning up real-life oil spills.

The study was published in the Biochemical Engineering Journal.

Source: INRS

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