Oil hungry bacteria

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University have cracked the genetic code of the marine bacteria that helped ‘eat’ the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, information that could aid clean-up efforts for the next major spill.


Scientists at Heriot-Watt University have cracked the genetic code of the marine bacteria that helped ‘eat’ the oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, information that could aid clean-up efforts for the next major spill.

In a paper published in Nature Microbiology, Dr Tony Gutierrez and his colleagues from the University of Texas and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveal the genetic pathways these bacteria use to consume the oil, what conditions they thrive in, what oil hydrocarbons they can eat, and how they work in concert during an oil spill.

Dr Gutierrez, an Associate Professor of Microbiology at Heriot-Watt University, said: “Understanding which bacteria are important to breaking down oil could help lead to the design of emergency response plans that are more effective and environmentally friendly for combating a major spill. We knew that certain bacteria will respond to and thrive during an oil spill and helped break down oil, but we didn’t know how this was co-ordinated.

“By reconstructing the genomes of these bacteria, we’ve discovered the pathways they use to breakdown the different types of hydrocarbon chemicals in oil, including some of the highly toxic ones, and the way the bacteria work as a community to degrade the oil.

“Different bacteria have different appetites for different hydrocarbons, but they can work beautifully in concert together to clean up polluted water.”